Urban mining to provide for critical deficit
Critical Minerals Alliances 2022 - September 12, 2022
Last updated 9/26/2023 at 12:38pm
Critical minerals can be recycled from decades of e-waste
The necessity of reclaiming waste as a means to curb the seemingly impossible material requirements of a renewable future is fostering a different kind of industry – urban mining.
"When you're in the renewable energy space, you've got to think through the whole lifecycle – where will EV and lithium-ion batteries go when they are no longer useful? It can't be to a landfill. That's not responsible," said Graphite One President and CEO Anthony Huston during an announcement of its domestic advanced graphite material supply chain plan, which includes its own recycling facility. "Battery materials are simply too critical and too scarce to let them go to waste. That all points to recycling battery materials."
With technologies coming out of the woodworks to separate valuable critical minerals from expired batteries or broken electronics, to combat the fervent need for battery metals, many companies have begun developing methods to extract the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.
In this case, the wheat being the metals and minerals vital to making new batteries, and the chaff is everything else.
The challenges go beyond just separating these components. While methods to break down and then reuse materials have existed for hundreds of years, today's metal recycling companies are endeavoring to attain environmentally conscientious and sustainability standards that old technologies certainly did not take into consideration.
For if the reclamation of such necessary materials produces the very same pollutants it is striving to reduce, then the purpose is moot.
While mining companies are mobilizing the best they can within the constraints of regulations toward this paradigm shift of global energy, and refineries and facilities are sprouting up in economically viable and strategic locales, the fact of the matter is, it will not be enough.
And while recycling will eventually fill large portions of the world's EV and renewable energy mineral needs, it will require large-scale mining to feed EV markets with enough minerals and metals to prime a future circular economy.
Nevertheless, a handful of forward-thinking companies are preparing for that eventual outcome by developing technologies to reprocess, repurpose, and recycle the minerals and metals essential to a green-driven world.
While a completed circle is many years away, there is no better time than now to prepare for when the life of today's EVs and renewable energy sources run their course, so future generations are not left with a bill they cannot pay.
RecycLiCo Battery Materials
As a pioneer in lithium-ion battery cathode recycling, British Columbia-based RecycLiCo Battery Materials Inc. (previously American Manganese Inc.) has quickly grasped the dilemma of future battery materials scarcity and has developed an incredible solution that allows its patented RecycLiCo process to upcycle old cathodes to the new chemistries being used in today's batteries powering EVs.
By dissolving cathode material from spent lithium-ion batteries or scrap from the manufacturing process, the company has shown that its approach can produce greater than 99.9% pure cathode material.
The company recently put its process through another round of rigorous scrutiny – conducting tests and audits to verify the capability and potency of its battery materials recycling and upgrade tech.
Initially, Kemetco Research Inc., a British Columbia-based analytics company that specializes in analytical chemistry and extractive metallurgy, carried out tests to determine the optimum processing capacity of a lithium-ion battery cathode scrap materials pilot plant.
The results were a C$2.7 million contract for Kemetco to develop a 500-kilogram-a-day demonstration recycling plant and the design of a five-metric-ton-per-day commercial recycling plant using the RecycLiCo process.
More recently, a complete "gate-to-gate" life cycle assessment was performed by Minviro Ltd., a UK-based and globally recognized sustainability and LCA consultancy, to quantify the environmental performance of producing nickel-manganese-cobalt cathode precursor and lithium hydroxide from recycled and upcycled battery waste.
"I am pleased to report that the LCA results confirm RecycLiCo's environmental impact to produce NMC precursor and lithium hydroxide, when compared to primary raw material extraction methods or competing hydrometallurgical recycling," said Larry Reaugh, president and CEO of RecycLiCo Battery Materials.
The report assessed RecycLiCo's process against competing hydrometallurgical recycling methods on the basis of producing one kilogram of nickel-manganese-cobalt precursor material. Such results included global warming potential, acidification potential, minerals and metals depletion, and fossil fuel depletion.
The RecycLiCo process was shown to produce only 7.1 kilograms of CO2-equivalent per kg of NMC precursor materials, 166% lower than the 18.8 kg for other hydrometallurgical methods.
Furthermore, according to RecycLiCo, this equates to 17,000 tons of CO2 per gigawatt-hour NMC battery material recycled, which is roughly equivalent to the average annual emissions of 3,700 internal combustion engine vehicles.
Minviro also found that RecycLiCo resulted in a 35% reduction in CO2-equivalent emissions for NMC precursor production and a 74% reduction for lithium hydroxide production compared to mining these materials.
"It was a pleasure working with Minviro over the past three months, and I'm extremely pleased with their detailed work in dissecting, evaluating, and quantifying the impact of every stream in our process," said Reaugh.
Li-Cycle spoke and hub
Known for its significant partnerships with General Motors, Glencore, and others, cooperation is the premise upon which Li-Cycle Holdings Corp. was founded as it endeavors to provide an end-of-life lithium-ion battery solution that creates a secondary supply of critical battery metals to meet increasing demand, while also ensuring a sustainable future for our planet.
Established in Ontario, Canada, Li-Cycle has developed its own method of safely and sustainably processing lithium-ion batteries by utilizing a unique and proprietary solvent extraction process via its "spoke and hub" model to recycle spent batteries.
With the spokes being a distribution network of how it will receive all types of lithium-ion batteries to transform them into an inert product to be shredded and separated, to utilizing the colloquially called "black mass" remnant – which is comprised of lithium, nickel, cobalt and graphite – at its hub location.
After its initial agreement with GM, Li-Cycle received a $200 million investment from Glencore plc, one of the world's largest global diversified natural resource companies and a major producer and marketer for more than 60 responsibly sourced commodities.
"We are excited to announce this new strategic partnership with Li-Cycle. We both believe that battery recycling will form a key part of the energy transition," said Kunal Sinha, head of recycling at Glencore and the agreed-upon nominee for Li-Cycle's board of directors. "Our bold aim is to help support the creation of a genuinely circular economy that supplies recycled materials and minerals back into the battery supply chain."
Furthermore, due to the company's potential, Li-Cycle was also recently selected as one of Canada's fastest-growing sustainable companies by Corporate Knights – a media, research and financial information products company based in Canada that has been producing global corporate and fund ranking for nearly 20 years.
Designed to highlight emerging Canadian companies whose business activities align with the transition to a clean economy, the revenue, capital expenditure, acquisitions, research and development, and employment of more than 6,000 companies were taken into consideration before releasing its list of the final 50.
From Corporate Knights' calculations, Li-Cycle has had an 831% revenue growth in a single year, marking it as the third-highest fastest-growing company in Canada and establishing its place as a future sustainable powerhouse for western supply of recycled battery metals.
With the support of one of the world's largest automakers, another from one of the world's largest commodity drivers, and the endorsement of a prestigious ranking firm, Li-Cycle has cemented its position as a future circular economy gateway for North America.
Aqua Metals and Redwood Materials
As time goes by and the world moves full swing toward renewable energy, multitudes of startups, universities and research labs are catching on to the potential of urban mining, or recycling of the immense quantities of decades of electronic e-waste in landfills and dumpsites throughout the U.S.
Companies like Redwood Materials Inc. and Aqua Metals Inc.
Founded in 2017 by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel, Redwood Materials is a battery recycling company that has been quietly prepping for an energy transition before it became a well-circulated buzzword.
Like many other recycling companies, Redwood's goal is to recover materials from perhaps the largest lithium and cobalt deposits in the western hemisphere, the junk drawers of America.
Having insider information and experience from the company that kickstarted the global transition to full EV production, Straubel made the move to create a company designed to recycle and reuse the materials needed for what he helped build for nearly two decades.
The idea is to kickstart this endeavor by recycling the untold volume of consumer-level electronics over the last thirty years – phones, computers, televisions, indoor and outdoor appliances, video game electronics, toys, toiletries, the list could go on with microchips, batteries, transistors, and every other aspect that people have used to create electronic devices.
As it waits for early generations of EVs to reach their expiration date, Redwood is focused on a more grassroots and homegrown method of recycling, even going so far as to post on its website, "if you have old lithium-ion batteries or e-waste, we encourage you to send them for recycling! Redwood accepts phones, laptops, tablets, power tools, electric toothbrushes, wireless headphones, and any other rechargeable device with a lithium-ion battery."
Aqua Metals, however, has opted to take an industrial approach, utilizing its proprietary AquaRefining technology. As a water-based recycling technology that can recover metals at room temperature and is fundamentally non-polluting, the company utilizes an electroplating process that essentially builds metal one atom at a time to produce some of the purest recovered metals in the world, according to Aqua Metals.
Already proven with its Aqualyzer – which produces 99.996% lead, some of the purist on Earth, from recycled lead-acid batteries – it was a small mental leap to apply its expertise toward lithium-ion recycling, which the company believes has the lowest environmental footprint of any technology under development.
In addition to lead and lithium batteries, Aqua Metals has also produced high-purity lithium hydroxide – used to make soaps for thickeners in lubricating greases – as well as copper, a metal critical to wiring the renewable energy future.
With these two companies, and countless others not mentioned, it is evident that there will be no small amount of competition when it comes full circle and the batteries and electronics of today reach the end of their life spans and can be repurposed into a new product once more.
March of the giants
The true movers and shakers of the renewable energy transition are the vehicle manufacturers.
With GM going so far as to completely rebrand, going all-in for its line of Ultium EVs, and Volkswagen having long prepared to recycle EV lithium-ion batteries before even having a complete fleet – if there is one thing these companies want, it's to sell cars.
However, none of them can do so without the necessary materials. Foreseeing the demand for lithium-ion batteries outweighing the supply of the raw materials needed to make them, many automakers have begun to establish in-house or partnerships with companies that can recycle those spent EV batteries.
Perhaps, GM global chief marketing officer Deborah Wahl said it best regarding today's green transition.
"There are moments in history when everything changes. Inflection points. We believe such a point is upon us for the mass adoption of electric vehicles."
How right she was.
BMW, Ford, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tesla, Toyota, Volvo, the list could go on, as multitudes of partnerships, strategic alliances, and investments are being made in a mad dash to solidify its position in a future green world.
Tens of billions of dollars thrown into these operations suggest that they mean business, and the wiser companies have begun partnering with battery manufacturers, who themselves have partnered with battery recyclers or who themselves recycle batteries.
While most do not expect any appreciable quantities of spent batteries for at least another decade, it is clear that a growing list of innovative companies have seen the bigger picture and are looking beyond the present supply chain concerns.
While the going continues to be rough to meet the demand projected by industry analysts, once the cycle is completely underway, these companies will be well established when the need to recycle battery materials back into the circular economy fully emerges.