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Recycling makes lithium-ion batteries IT technology

by YAR

Lithium-ion batteries are the cornerstone of the New Energy Economy, driving the growth of electrification and decarbonization. In fact, they are central to everything from mobile phones to electric vehicles to network storage.

But the value of such devices lies below the surface: They are made from raw materials that are now trapped in a maze of supply chains or sourced from hostile countries. Fortunately, recycling those raw materials is becoming economically viable. Additionally, the quality of reprocessed ores can be as good as “virgin” supplies that are mined from the Earth. However, mining will have to co-exist with recycling until such waste reaches scale.

“We break down batteries and extract critical materials. We refine those materials to produce chemicals that go back into batteries,” says Tim Johnston, co-founder and CEO of Li-Cycle Holding Corp., in a conversation with this writer.

“Those chemicals are the same as any mined material: they break down at the molecular level, the metals dissolve and we rebuild them,” he adds. “We can recover up to 95% of all lithium battery materials and return them to new batteries or to the economy. This is a net environmental benefit in relation to the extraction of these materials. Going to a source to process the materials is more efficient than the supply chain. There are less emissions, less water use and less land displacement.”

The market potential for lithium-ion batteries remains huge. Market research firm Valuates says the global potential for lithium-ion batteries was valued at $36.7 billion in 2019. But this figure is projected to reach $129.3 billion by 2027, a compound annual growth rate. 18% between 2020 and 2027. Statista adds that the recycling market for this type of battery could multiply by 10 over the next decade.

Electric vehicles will be an important market. The European Union is phasing out the internal combustion engine by 2040, while this country wants half of all vehicles to run on electricity by 2030.

Lithium-ion batteries use five fundamental raw materials: lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite. They also use aluminum and copper. But the minerals may come from nations hostile to the United States or from countries with poor child labor records. Russia, for example, is a leading supplier of nickel. And the Congo is the main supplier of cobalt, a country with bad labor practices.

The circular economy

Li-Cycle says that it sources its materials from entities with ethical business operations. Consider its relationship with Glencorp, one of the world’s largest natural resource companies: Glencore will supply Li-Cycle with all types of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries and manufacturing waste.

“This is a key step in establishing a strong long-term foundation for the vertical integration of the battery materials supply chain,” says Kunal Sinha, director of recycling at Glencore. “Together, we will expand the spectrum of battery material supply solutions to a broader global customer base, particularly in Europe and North America.”

LG Energy Solution, Ltd. and LG Chem, Ltd., part of LG Corp., have partnered with Li-Cycle. The two LGs will supply lithium-ion battery scrap to the battery recycler. Meanwhile, Li-Cycle has a similar deal with General Motors.

and LG Energy Solution, which have formed a unit called Ultium Cells. It’s a mouthful. But the gist of it is that Li-Cycle will recycle 100% of the scrap generated from battery cell manufacturing at Ultium’s Ohio plant.

In all these cases, Li-Cycle recovers the raw materials contained in the scrap, transforming them into valuable products and contributing to the circular economy, the idea that nothing is wasted and everything is reused. In fact, when compared to mining and importing, the business case for recycling becomes even stronger: mining and shipping generate greenhouse gases. And that doesn’t include the persistent supply chain disruptions caused by COVID19.

The United States is considered for its added value: computer chips and artificial intelligence. Strict regulations make it almost impossible for this country to catch up with current commodity exporters. China extracts 63% of all those minerals. But it controls 85% of the processing, the step done to separate the 17 minerals from the rare earth rock. The United States still produces 38,000 tons. But that is sent to China for processing.

“GM’s zero waste initiative aims to divert more than 90% of its manufacturing waste from landfill and incineration globally by 2025,” says Ken Morris, vice president of electric vehicles. “Now, we’re going to work closely with Ultium Cells and Li-Cycle to help the industry make even better use of the materials.”

look under the hood

Tesla may be a harbinger of things to come. It hopes to sell 20 million electric vehicles by 2030, a company that believes it can recover 92% of the materials in a battery. While fossil fuels are extracted and used once, recycling allows raw materials to have a future life. and Tesla

says that recycling costs much less than buying those minerals to build new batteries.

What is the price difference between extracting raw materials and recycling those same minerals? For now, there is a codependency. The growth of the battery is such that the extracted materials remain essential. But as electric vehicles age, those devices will need to be replaced. And harnessing raw materials from waste products will take time.

As to which is cheaper is a difficult question. That’s because recycling and reprocessing technologies can vary. But Li-Cycle says recycling is competitive, if not cheaper. Think of it this way: lithium-ion batteries use 17 raw materials that don’t exist in one place. Each must be removed before shipping and placed in a device. In contrast, a battery for recycling has all those minerals in one place.

“As we scale, we can generate higher revenue and lower cost-based source,” says Ajay Kochhar, co-founder and CEO of Li-Cycle, in a conversation. “But we need to scale. We won’t have to rely on unstable supply chains. For now, we need to source those materials in greater quantities from virgin sources and recycle as much as we can. It will take time for recycling to offset most of the demand. The recycling of materials must be efficient to be just as beneficial.”

The bottom line is that lithium-ion batteries are mainly used for transportation and grid storage, things that reduce the use of fossil fuels. Storage devices will be better and cheaper. But just as importantly, its reach will expand and help decarbonize the economy.

If you look under the hood to see that what’s inside those batteries is a rarity, you’ll realize that the raw materials are dirty to extract and expensive to ship, an exercise that furthers the case for recycling. Indeed, that is a healthier pursuit that will make it easier to integrate electric vehicles into the global economy.

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