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Finding the ‘sweet spot’ in advanced battery recycling

The global battery recycling market was valued at EUR 10.4 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach EUR 19.2 billion by 2030. At the same time, recycling players are confronted with the growing demand for electronics and e-mobility products. The question is: can they keep up?

‘A lot is being asked of us as recyclers these days,’ remarks Bart Verrecht of Belgian precious metals processer Umicore. He addressed an ‘age of ambition’ at the recent International Congress for Battery Recycling (ICBR) in Salzburg. ‘I realise the targets outlined by the EU and trade associations can seem like a lot to live up to. Basically, you need to ensure an effective volume and mass reduction of footprint on a massive scale, at least one million tonnes per year.’

Umicore currently recycles around 7 000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries at its site in Hoboken each year – the equivalent of 350 000 electric car batteries. This includes production scrap from battery and car manufacturers. Umicore manages end-to-end recycling, with a recycling rate of 95% for nickel, cobalt and copper, and over 70% for battery-grade lithium.

Innovation ahead

‘The route from urban mine to wheel is not always easy,’ Verrecht laments. He says Umicore is ‘eager to contribute’ and is planning build a 150 000 tonnes per year battery recycling plant in Europe by 2026. ‘More details about this state-of-the-art battery hub will follow in the coming months.’

The company is looking to advanced technology to optimise its operations. ‘We have applied for 20 patents, 15 of which have already been granted,’ Verrecht points out. The recycler believes combining high temperature with wet chemical processing steps is essential to meet long-term circular requirements.

Pre-treatment further enhances the results of this pyro-hydro approach. Umicore believes it’s all about finding the ‘sweet spot’ between curbing costs, ensuring high purity output and boosting overall efficiency.

‘Our new method makes efficient use of the chemical energy present in the battery,’ Verrecht says. ‘This means our furnace shaft no longer requires large amounts of coke. The carbon in graphite and electrolyte also acts as a reductant, meaning the interesting metals are separated into the alloys and the other ones go into the slag.

‘Best yet, there will be a lot of excess energy. You can use this to power your facility and to generate heat. That’s especially useful at a time like this with high energy prices.’

Let’s talk about graphite

Stakeholders argue that recycling graphite is crucial to improve sustainability in the sector. ‘But it’s not yet feasible at industrial scale, at least, not yet,’ Verrecht observes. ‘I have heard the EU is drafting proposals on this. We’ll have to wait and see what this means exactly.’

He stresses this is about black mass carbon, not the pure carbon used in battery manufacture. ‘Obviously, the quality deteriorates during a battery’s lifecycle. So I’m curious to see how we can begin to bring carbon back into the battery. Do we have to resort to other uses, in other words downcycling? Will there be targets to avoid that?’

Then there are trends that may impact recyclability such as the presence of silicon in anodes as well as lithium-metal anodes. It may also impact future demand for graphite.

‘Ultimately, even if it’s technically possible to recycle all battery materials, we must consider if it’s a sustainable reality,’ Verrecht concludes. ‘What are the costs involved of producing the materials in question and how much does recycling cost? We have to be transparent about those figures so we come up with solutions that actually benefit our world, not just on paper.’

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