Electra maintains black mass production
Successful trial spurs company to continue recycling efforts Metal Tech News – October 4, 2023
Last updated 10/11/2023 at 12:08pm
Based on the success of its battery recycling trial, which showed improved recoveries of critical battery elements, higher metal content, and reduced use of reagents, thus paving the way for a higher-quality final product for its customers, Electra Battery Materials Corp. is extending processing of black mass at its refinery complex in Ontario, Canada.
"Results from our plant-scale black mass trial continue to exceed our expectations," said Electra Battery Materials CEO Trent Mell. "Recovery rates for nickel, cobalt, and manganese continue to improve along with enhancements to our hydrometallurgical process and reductions in reagent consumption."
Black mass, the battery recycling industry term to describe the material left over once expired lithium-ion batteries are shredded and all casings are removed, contains high-value elements, including lithium, nickel, manganese, copper, and graphite, and once recovered, can be reused to produce new batteries.
With the ongoing transition toward clean energy technologies, North American battery recyclers have focused on collecting and shredding batteries with the hopes of offsetting demand for raw, virgin resources.
More established recyclers, even before the transition, often treat by a pyrometallurgical smelting process, but this high-temperature smelting process results in a counterintuitive higher carbon footprint and often lower metal recovery than Electra's hydrometallurgical process, which dissolves the materials for separation.
Launching its black mass trial at the end of December, Electra has processed lithium batteries in bulk, which has successfully extracted products containing lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, copper, and graphite.
Being conducted at the company's recently centralized operations north of Toronto, this trial has signaled to Electra that the direction it is taking is the correct one. This is further exemplified through its targeted cobalt refinery still under construction, as the refurbishment and installation of key equipment at its existing refinery allows the recycling trial to proceed alongside construction activities.
"As we accelerate our black mass recycling strategy, our focus has broadened to include upstream battery scrap shredding as well as upgrading our refined products to a battery-grade quality," said Mell. "While we anticipate releasing a summary report of our findings from the demonstration plant we have been operating for the past nine months, we have decided to extend our demonstration plant operations to build on recent success."
To date, Electra has processed roughly 40 metric tons of black mass in the plant-scale setting, which the company believes is the first of its kind in North America.
While recovery rates improved across the board for targeted materials, recovery rates for manganese are potentially the most exciting, which are 50% higher than the results achieved in a lab setting.
Additionally, metal content contained in the nickel-cobalt mixed hydroxide precipitate (MHP) produced from the recycling process has increased in the range of five to 10% since the start of the trial – an increase in metal content results in a higher value saleable product, thereby improving the potential economics of continuous recycling operations.
"As the only plant-scale operator in North America currently recovering all critical metals from recycled lithium-ion batteries, we are very proud of the achievements made by our people and the performance of our physical plant to date," said Electra Battery Materials Vice President of Project Development Mark Trevisiol. "Our operations and technical staff have repeatedly demonstrated innovative solutions centered on improving efficiencies of our process while at the same time simplifying the flow sheet. These changes have been quickly applied in the field and generated value in products being produced."
In addition to the 40 metric tons of black mass, approximately 20 metric tons of nickel-cobalt MHP product has already been shipped to customers.
Furthermore, reagent requirements have been reduced, and in some cases, alternative, less costly reagents have been used for improved overall metal recovery. Even better, the company adds that some of the reagent additions substituted have reduced overall impurity levels within the process – meaning it is expected to further lower operating expenses, thereby improving the economics of its recycling.
The company says that based on the results achieved so far, it has elected to continue processing black mass material at its refinery complex, to "further enhance its process and continue delivery of saleable products to customers."
"In addition to the gains made to metal recoveries and reagent use, other changes, such as improving the washing of saleable residues in our filter press equipment and recycling internal water streams, have improved our overall efficiencies," added Trevisiol. "With our decision to continue processing black mass material in our goal to expand processing capacity, we now plan to further enhance our process and target battery-grade quality products."
Recycling black mass will increasingly become a key feature of the EV battery supply chain, given the strong demand for critical minerals and the looming supply deficit of metals such as nickel and cobalt. According to data from McKinsey & Company, available battery material for recycling is expected to grow by 20% per year through 2040, and Electra hopes to have a firm foundation to head this recycling for years to come.