Home / News / Closed-Loop Battery Recycling Is Closer Than You Think

Closed-Loop Battery Recycling Is Closer Than You Think

Berlin, Germany

„`The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones„`

The shift to EV mobility is an essential step in overcoming the age of fossil fuel. At the same time, we make ourselves dependent on other critical resources – one of which is lithium, a key element needed for the production of more than 50% of today’s EV battery cells.

A year ago the European Commission proposed [a new battery regulation](https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52020PC0798) stating that by 2030 every battery produced shall contain 4% of lithium from recycling. That is 320 g recycled lithium in a 400 kg battery which amounts to approximately 3.200 tons of battery-grade recycled lithium in the EU, if we assume an additional 10 million EVs to be manufactured in 2030 with one 400 kg battery each. An amount that many claim to be illusive from today’s standpoint, but I believe that it is not. On the contrary, it’s aiming too low.

Today the share of batteries collected for metal recycling ranges from 5-10% depending on whose numbers you believe. A closed loop for lithium is essentially non-existent. For years prices were too low to make recycling profitable.

With EVs finally on the rise in Europe and a commodity supercycle at our doorstep, a slight panic arises amongst those looking at their future lithium supply. In Europe, we need to focus on creating a recycling ecosystem to de-risk shortages and lack of our own primary feedstock. OEMs such as BMW even proclaim a paradigm shift to using secondary materials first.

Let’s face it, despite ambitious sustainability targets, lithium mining and battery chemical production is far from being considered cleantech today. All the more reason to work on solutions that create feedstock from secondary material thereby reducing the need for raw material mining. I believe that only through scaling mechanical and hydrometallurgical battery recycling we can accelerate the path towards a closed-loop lithium market.

The most valuable battery metals which are nickel, cobalt and copper are recovered through smelting. This so-called pyrometallurgical process is the dominant industrial recycling process. It’s a simple and robust process for large quantities. On its downside it consumes a lot of energy and does not recover light metals such as aluminum and **lithium**, as they end up as slag, making further recycling economically unfeasible. A far better candidate for closed loop batteries (from a lithium-viewpoint) is the combination of mechanical and hydrometallurgical recycling, a strategy that startups (e.g. @Li-Cycle) and incumbents (e.g. @BASF) see as worthy for scaling. Mechanical recycling generates a powder called black mass that contains so-called active battery materials including manganese, cobalt, nickel, and lithium. Through hydrometallurgical processing of that black mass we can create a secondary feedstock such as lithium sulfate (Li2SO4) or industry-grade lithium hydroxide (LiOH).

Circular Lithium Closing Loop Recycling Blueprint

In essence this means, we can use recovered lithium from battery recycling as a raw material (secondary feedstock) to substitute the need for conventional lithium mining (primary feedstock).
A ton of lithium ore from a typical hard rock mine has about 0.5% relative lithium content. An old EV battery contains about 2% lithium. By 2030, the EU aims for a 30 million EV penetration on our streets. That is 240.000 tons of potentially recyclable lithium stock. These “rolling” urban mines will become as important as raw material mining in a not-so-distant future.

How does this translate into our work at Rock Tech? I seek for ways to make our product transparent to stakeholders and increase the likelihood of effective recycling already in the product design phase. Together with startups and distinguished product lifecycle experts we are working on end-to-end compliance through a digital chain of custody across the supply chain lifecycle. In fewer words, we make sure that the ecological footprint of Rock Tech’s lithium will be low and traceable – via a blockchain-based lithium passport.

The groundwork for scalable profit in battery recycling 2030 must happen now. And I am thankful for the many likeminded and innovative people and companies that push this topic alongside with me to create a system that goes beyond what the EU prescribes.