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‘We can’t sleepwalk into a green revolution’

Thomas Holberg (middle) welcoming EU Commission frontman Frans Timmermans (left) to the new site in Rotterdam.

The world at large is seeing an ‘omnipresence’ of lithium-ion batteries, observes Thomas Holberg, global vice president of TES Sustainable Battery Solutions. He considers it one of the industry’s biggest challenges to ensure a proper recycling infrastructure.

Holberg, who has been in the recycling industry for over 30 years, with notable experience in e-scrap and battery processing, details how TES is trying to accelerate change.

How would you describe the global battery market right now?

‘It’s very dynamic. The importance of lithium-ion batteries’ (LIBs) role within the green revolution is well documented, and the race is on to meet the capacity that is coming in both the short and mid-term. We are seeing the stock from electric vehicle (EV) batteries increasing today, sooner than many might have anticipated.

This is partly due to the understandable inefficiencies arising from the new gigafactories being established to meet battery production demand. Production scrap rates could be as high as 40%. And let’s keep in mind the countless batteries powering laptops, smartphones, data centres and energy storage systems.’

And how important is recycling for the battery sector?

‘Recycling is a critical component of leveraging the circular potential of LIBs. We are working to ensure we seize the opportunity to build a circular economy for batteries. If we sleepwalk into establishing linear economies that are reliant on the mass extraction of scarce virgin materials via traditional mining, this will be a green revolution in name only.

Now that the predicted growth of the EV market is more evident, with gigafactories being set up in Europe and North America, we are seeing major investments in new recycling capacities being announced across all regions. But permitting challenges can slow down building the required capacity to meet market demand.’

What projects are you working on at the moment?

‘Recently we have completed the commissioning of our 10 000-ton battery recycling plant in Shanghai and have plans to ramp up the capacity in two steps to 100 000 tons by 2027. Today the facilities host a semi-automated disassembly process for EV batteries with a subsequent mechanical and hydrometallurgical treatment process to recover scarce metals like nickel, cobalt and lithium.

We’re also building a facility in Sydney to play a strategic role in Australia’s recycling ecosystem, following a successful grant application to the New South Wales Environment Protection Authority. This facility will test, repurpose and recycle LIBs from solar energy storage systems, EVs, e-mobility and portable devices. We expect this facility to be online by summer 2023 and have the capacity to handle 2000 tons a year of end-of-life LIB units.

We are also scoping locations in Europe and North America. You will hear more about this soon. Finally, we have been acquired by SK ecoplant and are now part of a larger family. We anticipate that this will allow us to supercharge our growth in this space, but it also presents an opportunity to work further up the value chain, as SK is a battery producer and has large gigafactories in Korea, China, Europe and North America.’

TES is building a new battery recycling facility in Rotterdam. Can you give any details?

‘I am incredibly excited. Several gigafactories are being built in Europe, and this battery treatment plant will be the first in the Netherlands ready to meet that demand. Learning from our experiences in Singapore and China, we will first launch a 10 000-ton mechanical treatment process that will produce black mass by the end of the year.

The second phase will follow on a new site that will have the capacity to recycle 25 000 tons via our award-winning hydrometallurgy process. Rotterdam will become our blueprint model for our planned site expansions across Europe and other regions.’

How exactly does TES deal with spent batteries?

‘TES uses a process, refined over many years, that combines mechanical separation and chemical refinement. We have found that our hydrometallurgical process offers both high purity and recovery rates. Furthermore, it’s a closed-loop process. We already deliver battery metals back into the supply chain of our original equipment manufacturers in

China. Our team combines recycling expertise with the knowledge of a battery producer. For example, in Singapore, we can discharge the batteries that we receive and, combined with solar energy generated at the facility, use them to power our process. Furthermore, the water used in the process is used again and again, so no wastewater is generated.’

Do you think more companies like TES will make similar big investments to advance battery recycling?

‘Ultimately, that will be up to them. We’ve been doing this for a while and are aware of the challenges around establishing the infrastructure to enable battery recycling, which goes beyond just financial investment. For example, it’s critical to have the support of the local environmental agencies and municipalities.

For us, it has been an organic journey, which started with a facility in Grenoble where our process was refined, before the launch of the larger flagship facility in Singapore. It’s now a matter of scaling something that we’ve already proven. I am aware we are ahead of the curve.’

European nations are often called leaders in sustainability and technology. Do you agree?

‘We probably need to be honest and confess that Chinese battery recycling technology for LIBs, and especially operational experience, is ahead of Western markets. A best-of-both worlds approach is needed to learn from and adapt this experience to meet the challenging environmental framework in Europe.

I think countries have so much to learn from each other. If you want to remain competitive, you must not waste time reinventing the wheel. Working together in multinational projects will lead to progress.’

Read the full article in Recycling Technology >>

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