Li-Cycle is driving the future of lithium-ion battery recycling
Kingston-based innovators on the path to creating a true circular economy for one of the world's most challenging waste streams
Li-Cycle, the global pioneer in end-of-life lithium-ion battery recovery and recycling, is continuing into 2021 on the heels of a very busy 2020. Last year the company upgraded their facility in Kingston to double its capacity to recover end of life lithium-ion batteries and opened a second facility in Rochester, New York, bringing their total recovery capacity to approximately 10,000 tonnes per year. In 2020, the company was ISO certified and recognized with multiple clean-tech and circular economy industry accolades, and in February, 2021, announced plans to become a publicly traded company.
In addition to all of this, Li-Cycle completed an EV bus battery recycling pilot in 2020 with fellow Canadian-based electric-powered bus manufacturer New Flyer LLC, turning 3,200 pounds of heavy-duty lithium-ion battery modules into valuable material, the bulk of which is reused in making new lithium-ion batteries.
According to Li-Cycle CEO Ajay Kochhar, "Li-Cycle is at the forefront of perhaps the most important segment of the electric vehicle and battery supply chain. This is a market that requires significant development - specifically when it comes to handling the incoming tsunami of spent lithium-ion batteries. Without sustainable and economically viable lithium-ion battery recycling, we believe it's likely that electric vehicle proliferation will be substantially hindered. Our newest investment partners have the vision to see that truly innovative and circular battery recycling is the key to providing a solution for this urgent global challenge and opportunity."
With all of their growth and advances in 2020, Li-Cycle is now one of very few companies globally that is capable of recovering critical battery materials from lithium-ion batteries in a sustainable and safe manner. With the current construction of their largest facility in New York, set to open in late 2022, the company is also now on the path to becoming the first to capture 95 percent of all valuable materials in a lithium-ion battery, and produce battery-grade lithium chemicals which can be used directly in the manufacture of new batteries.
Spoke & Hub
According to Li-Cycle's Chief Commercial Officer, Kunal Phalpher, traditionally, the bulk of used lithium-ion batteries have been sent to a thermal or smelting process, which really focuses on nickel and cobalt recovery, and to a certain extent copper.
"There's a lot more materials in a lithium-ion battery," explains Phalpher. "Our business is focused on any type of chemistries. Whether it's iron phosphate or nickel, manganese or cobalt, we can take any batteries from the lithium-ion family. What we aimed to figure out was how do you safely get more of the value out of the battery, and recover a wider array of the material, rather than let valuable materials go to waste or into other streams.
"The second issue we're trying to resolve is that smelters and other large furnaces use a very centralized model. But batteries are heavy, difficult and expensive to transport. So how can we think of creating a better logistical network or system whereby you can reduce those logistics costs?"
For Li-Cycle this is where their award-winning, proprietary Spoke & Hub concept comes into play. The technology used is a combination of mechanical safe size reduction and hydrometallurgical resource recovery specifically designed for lithium-ion battery recycling. The spokes (currently Spoke 1 is in Kingston and Spoke 2 is in Rochester) are where all types of li-ion batteries are safely transformed from a charged state to inert. Here, Li-Cycle separates out easily recoverable plastics and metals, including copper, aluminum and precious metals, for sale to recyclers. Phalpher says value for the metals they recover really varies by battery type.
"A control circuit board on the battery has gold and silver in it," he explains. "Depending on the size of the batteries and type of the batteries, you'll get variability in the precious metals, but it is all extracted in the same mixed metal, copper and aluminum stream. When we sell it downstream, they're able to recover not only the copper and other metal, but all the precious metals."
What is left after the initial plastics and metals are separated out is black mass, which is really Li-Cycle's main focus. Black mass is a dense, cakey mixture containing a blend of critical battery materials, including cobalt, nickel, lithium and graphite, as well as copper, manganese and aluminum, all of which can be sold directly back to the lithium-ion battery manufacturing sector for use in new batteries.
Phalpher says that by far the highest value material recovered for them is cobalt from this black mass. It's the highest dollar per tonnage, and they produce a significant amount of it. The next highest total value would be the nickel.
"The black mass is the feed to our Hub, so we're going to build that Hub at a large scale," explains Phalpher. "The black mass is refined through several chemical processes, including an innovative, non-thermal wet process that separates out cobalt nickel, and lithium in individual forms, with a high enough purity to go back into the battery supply chain directly."
The new Hub facility in Rochester is expected to bring Li-Cycle's total yearly capacity for the recycling of lithium-ion batteries to about 60,000 metric tonnes, including the recovery of approximately 25,000 tonnes of black mass material.
A safe, efficient closed loop for lithium-ion batteries
A more environmentally friendly process for recovering used lithium-ion batteries is inherent in Li-Cycle's Spoke & Hub model. The process recovers up to 95 percent of each lithium-ion battery for recycling, keeping them out of landfills and other streams, and it means there is less high-weight, potentially hazardous, emissions-creating lithium-ion battery transportation required. In addition, it keeps lithium-ion batteries, which are explosive if punctured, out of regular recycling streams.
The environmental and safety benefits of what Li-Cycle is doing is also about the technology being used. Core to their methodology for recycling lithium-ion batteries is that there is no thermal processing at any stage.
Li-Cycle's process is uniquely capable of recycling all variants of cathode and anode chemistries within the lithium-ion spectrum, without the need for sorting into specific chemistries. It involves a two-step mechanical and hydrometallurgical (wet chemistry) technology that ensures that lithium-ion batteries are processed safely, without heat or the risk of fire. The process is also inherently sustainable, producing no solid waste streams, minimal water discharge and no harmful air emissions.
According to Phalpher, it is true that lithium-ion batteries are potentially hazardous and do need to be dealt with in a very specific way to keep the process safe. If an alkaline battery is shred, there is no risk of fire, whereas with lithium-ion batteries, if a recycling facility or landfill was to puncture one, or it goes into a shredder, it can cause a small explosion and possibly a fire.
"That's where our specialized, non-thermal technology comes into play. It eliminates the risk of fire when processing these batteries."
He notes also that the highest risk part of the lithium-ion battery recovery process is during transport, as spent batteries are moved mostly by truck. "They have to be packaged properly for transport," he explains. "Then, as long as we're storing them properly, we are safe. There are certain precautions and best practices in order to store them appropriately so that even if there is an incident, it's not causing a whole batch of batteries to catch fire. We have a warehouse full of batteries, which are completely safe."
Phalpher adds that when dealing with electric vehicles and automotive OEMs as a source for their used batteries, it's pretty clear which ones are lithium-ion and which ones are not. But from residential and commercial sources, Li-Cycle does get a very small amount of contamination in their streams, but it is really a non-issue.
"Our upstream partners' sorting processes are manual and very efficient, typically, so our plants can sometimes end up with 0.01 percent contamination from alkaline batteries, but not much more. As we look at batteries on our lines, we make sure to pick out ones that aren't lithium-ion. It's not going to have a huge impact if a couple of AA's get into our process once in a while. Alkaline batteries are far less volatile than lithium-ion batteries."
There is definitely much more of a challenge for recycling facilities if lithium-ion batteries contaminate consumer battery recycling streams.
"If a consumer drops their battery off at a store, that collection system is generally taking all types of batteries: alkaline, nickel, cadmium, etc., and then they are sorted into different streams by recyclers," says Phalpher. "We've seen instances of lithium-ion batteries mistakenly going to a lead-acid recycling facility, or a municipal recycling facility, where somebody has thrown their phone in the garbage and it causes a fire. We really need to be careful with these batteries. Regular recyclers are just not set up to safely and efficiently deal with them. They don't work in their existing processes. Part of the solution is to educate the public and industry about the risks of sending end of life lithium-ion batteries through the wrong pathway."
Currently, the lithium-ion battery manufacturing sector is looking at standardized colour-coding of batteries, so that they're more identifiable in the stream, and easier to separate.
"There's definitely a few initiatives out there to help make collection and identification safer and easier," he says, adding that there is also some good infrastructure for efficient collection already in place.
"We want to try and use existing collection schemes, like what is in place for lead-acid auto batteries, through automotive groups and automotive dealerships," Phalpher says. "There is a well-oiled machine for pickup and drop off of lead-acid batteries. So, how do we integrate with that and ensure that lithium-ion batteries are properly identified? Some lithium-ion batteries look exactly like what a lead-acid battery looks like, so it is hard to identify in regular recycling streams.
"Labelling, and colour coding, whatever they can do to make it easily identifiable for sorting batteries quickly, is an important next step," Phalpher adds.
On the horizon for Li-Cycle
"We have been selling our black mass, but we're now in a phase where we're moving toward keeping it for ourselves, to process for further value at our Hubs," explains Phalpher. "The most valuable pieces of that are the cobalt and the nickel, where we have seen a real increase in price in the last several months - basically since the beginning of the year. According to one of our analysts, we've already hit the prices that were projected by many experts for 2024 or 2025. Black mass is tradable to various smelters, and refiners buy it primarily on a nickel/cobalt basis so there's a good market for it."
He says as electrification of vehicles continues to increase rapidly, the demand for all of the valuable materials in lithium-ion batteries is also growing at a tremendous rate. "Many expert reports tell us that the supply demand gap is projected to come in the next three to five years, which is also helping drive pricing now."
Phalpher adds that one of the key trends currently around the electric vehicle supply chain, especially in North America, and it has already been seen in Europe over the last several years, is significant growth of domestic electric vehicle supply chains.
"We are going to be a raw material producer at a large volume in North America," says Phalpher. "So as much of that supply chain that we can keep local, helps bring down the cost of producing batteries for EVs - which is the goal: to build mass production and higher penetration into that market.
"We've used lithium-ion batteries in phones and laptops for some time now, but from a pure weight-tonnage perspective, it hasn't yet been a very large market," he continues. "As we use more devices, and we have the addition of all the other applications for lithium-ion batteries, with the electrification of vehicles, trucks and trains, all of this is going to add a significant volume of batteries. That's why you have more and more companies, like ourselves, looking at this as a niche business."
Phalpher says Li-Cycle's efforts for 2021 are primarily focused on the construction of their Hub facility in Rochester, and on eventually adding additional spoke capacity in North America, as well as global expansion into Europe and Asia.
Most recently, the company also announced plans for construction of their Commercial Spoke 3 facility, in Arizona, which is expected to process 10,000 tonnes of batteries per year, bringing Li-Cycle's North American recycling capacity to 20,000 tonnes per year
"Once completed, our newest Spoke facility will add significant recycling capacity to Li-Cycle, strategically expanding the geographic footprint of our closed-loop solution for recycling lithium-ion battery materials," said Tim Johnston, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of Li-Cycle. "Our Arizona Spoke will have two 5,000 tonne processing lines, effectively doubling our total recycling capacity in North America. It will also be engineered to directly process full electric vehicle packs without any dismantling. Spoke 3 will mark another important milestone as we continue to execute on our global growth plans and scale our sustainable, safe and innovative Spoke & Hub Technologies™."
"Arizona is thrilled to be selected as the home of Li-Cycle's new lithium battery recycling plant," said Governor Doug Ducey. "This new facility will support Arizona's growing electric vehicle industry by helping meet the demand for battery materials - in a way that's sustainable and environmentally friendly. Li-Cycle is a welcome addition to Arizona's thriving technology ecosystem, and we thank their entire team for choosing Arizona."
"With our rapidly expanding electric vehicle sector and focus on sustainability, Arizona is the perfect destination for Li-Cycle's western-U.S. battery recycling hub," said Sandra Watson, President and CEO of the Arizona Commerce Authority. "The Company's cutting-edge technology fills a growing supply chain need while providing an eco-friendly solution for battery recycling. Arizona is proud to be a partner in Li-Cycle's success and contribute to the positive impact they will continue to have."
"If we looked at lithium-ion battery recycling five years ago, it was about the economics of the technology," concludes Li-Cycle's Phalpher. "We've now proven that you can make an economic case to safely, cost-effectively recycle lithium-ion batteries. As an industry it's now about continuing to improve how we collect and transport these batteries, and make it more efficient, safer and more cost-effective."
This article was originally published as our cover story in the April 2021 edition of Recycling Product News, Volume 29, Number 3.
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