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Recyclers scramble to boost battery metals market share

‘The potential growth of battery driven products is incredible,’ according to Laurent Cohen of Solvay US. ‘The input recyclers provide today is but a drop in the ocean in the demand for battery metals,’ he told delegates gathered at the recent International Congress for Battery Recycling (ICBR).

Cohen cites data from Cirba Solutions stating that 95% of demand will be driven by battery-operated products, notably in the area of e-mobility. Demand for globally mined lithium is projected to increase threefold by 2030, to roughly 2 360 000 tonnes. Projected supply will be only at 1 285 000 tonnes annually resulting in a shortfall of well over 80% by 2030.

The forecast is not that different for nickel and cobalt, demand for which (2 975 000 tonnes for nickel and 157 000 tonnes for cobalt) is expected to double by 2030. The shortfall for these metals will be over 25% and 30%, respectively. Battery manufacture is thought to represent between 20% and 50% of total demand. 

Liberty

In the current scenario, scrap is projected to account for 210 000 tonnes per year of lithium and nickel, and for 20 000 tonnes of cobalt. ‘But there is still time to take action,’ Cohen tells delegates in Salzburg, confident that recyclers could have a large market share by 2040.

Eager to see this become reality ‘sooner rather than later’, Solvay has teamed up with carmaker Renault and waste manager Veolia for an R&D project known as ‘Liberty’.

‘Instead of starting from scratch, we’ve pooled our expertise and are using the latest technology,’ Cohen reports. This is based on Veolia’s proven black mass dry metallurgical process. It includes sorting and leaching steps to remove copper, manganese and iron to yield a crystallised output of lithium, nickel and cobalt with 99.9% purity.

Cohen says this delivers ‘very attractive prices’ on the LME, with a recovered value estimated at US$ 9 459 per tonne of spent battery metals. ‘Mind you, these numbers are based on minimum efficiency, so they could be much higher.’

Hefty profits

Cohen quotes Tesla ceo Elon Musk recently saying that ‘lithium margins are now practically computer margins’. He explains there is simply not enough material that is battery grade.

‘That creates a money-printing industry. If you’re a refiner, just buy the industrial grade and refine the lithium to battery grade and you can enjoy very hefty profits based on the difference in price. That’s what we may also see happen to cobalt.

‘They say that necessity is the mother of invention, right? Then you may also say that circularity is the mother of optimisation.’

Initiatives like Liberty are intended to help cope with metal market volatility while mitigating feedstock dependency and proving the added value of recycling in a closed loop.

‘Collaboration can take our sector to the next level,’ Cohen believes. ‘Compared to a solo operation, recycling partners enjoy more flexibility and opportunities, allowing them to optimise profits and scale up.’

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