August 30, 2018
With nickel-containing Li-ion battery usage forecast to grow exponentially around the world in the next 20 years, end-of-life collection and recycling is poised to grow as well.
Proven recycling technologies and processes are already in place and can be expanded as needed. Around the globe, innovative companies are continuing to explore effective and economically viable methods to meet a future surge, driven by regulatory requirements on end-of-life responsibilities as well as the safe handling and transport of Li-ion batteries.
This will be supported by the positive economic value recovered from the materials, especially nickel.
The big difference: Automotive and energy storage
In China, where millions of electric vehicles are already in use, new legislation has put the responsibility of end-of-life battery collection and recycling on the car manufacturers who are now preparing for similar legislation in the rest of the world.
Very different from batteries in portable electronics, high voltage automotive batteries are large battery packs, consisting of 5,000-12,000 cells.
Improved Electrical Energy Storage involving nickel-containing batteries is increasingly key to providing electrical grid stability, improving the efficiency and reliability of wind and solar energy sources. Those large batteries will also require end-of-life management involving re-use or recycling.
Economic, environmental drivers
The industry needs closed-loop, energy-efficient and sustainable resource recovery processes and systems, coupled with a financial value proposition. The key economic driver for Li-ion battery recycling is the recovery of the valuable metals and their compounds found in the cathodes and anodes: cobalt, nickel, manganese, copper, lithium, which can be used for new battery formulations.
The volume of batteries becoming available for recycling in the medium term will justify new recycling facilities and investment in technological research that will increase material recovery and reduce costs.
Efficient Li-ion battery recycling is important for environmental reasons because of toxicity and safety. Proper handling and transportation are essential.
Emerging demand for innovation
The battery recycling process, which might be better described as the battery resource recovery process, can be pyro-metallurgical or hydro-metallurgical, or a combination of both.
Belgium-based Umicore Battery Recycling combines pyro and hydro technology. This unique technology is operational at industrial scale (7000 t/ year) and designed to safely treat large volumes of different types of complex metal-rich waste streams.
Battery packs are dismantled to the level of modules. These modules are directly fed into the process which avoids the need for any potentially hazardous pre-treatment. A gas cleaning system guarantees that all organic compounds are fully decomposed and that no harmful or volatile organic compounds are produced. The process reduces the consumption of energy and CO2 emissions to a minimum by using the energy present inside the battery components (electrolyte, plastics and metals).
The subsequent hydro refining process recovers and purifies nickel, cobalt, copper and lithium. These cobalt, nickel and lithium units can then be used again in Umicore’s Li-ion cathode materials, closing the battery loop. Precious metals from the battery management system are recovered in a separate process.
Glencore, a leading producer and marketer of nickel, is one of the largest recyclers and processors of nickel-
bearing materials, including batteries.
Using a pyro-metallurgical process at its nickel smelting facility in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, Glencore recovers nickel, cobalt and copper metals from NiMH and Li-ion batteries.
Through continuous efforts to improve its electric furnace and its converter technology, Glencore achieves very high metal recovery rates. The company has invested in a calciner (a long rotary kiln) where organic battery components are removed and safely renders the batteries inert. It is a “green” technology and all of the calciner gases are captured and safely managed.
“With our expanding battery recycling, we maximise safety by pre-treatment of the battery cells at various facilities globally,” says Robert Sutherland, Raw Material Manager at Glencore.
Canadian company, Li-Cycle Corp., based in Mississauga, Ontario, has developed a proprietary process to address the emerging international demand.
Li-Cycle Technology™ is a two-step hydro-metallurgical resource recovery process. The first step is an automated process that dismantles the battery cells/packs, without risk of combustion or explosion. The second step consists of chemically treating the mechanically processed intermediate product to recover the nickel, cobalt, copper, aluminum and lithium in the form of battery chemicals. In the case of nickel, nickel sulphate can be directly used by the battery industry.
This closed-loop process recovers all battery materials, including plastics, electrolytes and graphite. There are no primary gases to capture and no solid waste to manage. All materials go back to the economy in some form.
“We believe 5-10% of nickel sulphate demand could be met through the recycling of Li-ion batteries by 2025,” says Ajay Kochhar, Li-Cycle Corp. CEO.
American Manganese Inc.
In Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, American Manganese Inc. and its third-party contractor, Kemetco Research Inc., have developed an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly hydro-metallurgical battery recycling process.
Li-ion batteries are ground into a powder by Kemetco and plastics burned off. The powder is then subjected to leach extraction of the metals. The result is high purity lithium, cobalt, nickel, aluminium and manganese powder, suitable for direct recycling back into new Li-ion batteries. At bench scale, Kemetco reports 100% recovery rates with this process. Large scale processing recovery rates are expected to be slightly lower.
“Our strategy is to set up small plants at several different locations within proximity of markets”, says Larry Reaugh, American Manganese Inc. President and CEO.
When the stream of end-of-life nickel-containing batteries becomes a torrent, forward-thinking companies are ensuring the recycling technology and capacity will be there.