Disrupting the ‘Li-ion battery waste to value creation’ market

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pv magazine: Is it correct to say that urban mining is a sunrise industry in India? 

Due to the large consumer base and India’s push towards faster adoption of electric vehicles, the demand and supply of lithium-ion batteries are on an exponential rise. This provides a good opportunity for the urban mining industry.

Since India does not have any significant reserves of its own of rare metals like cobalt, lithium, and nickel, it becomes imperative to find alternative channels to ensure a consistent supply of these. 

One very obvious way is to collaborate with other nations. However, this is very risky and prone to unpredictable geopolitical changes beyond one’s control. 

The other safer method is to tap into the incoming supply of these metals in the form of lithium-ion batteries. Once it can be ensured that metals can be extracted from these batteries in a sustainable and clean manner, it could supplement the former supply sources as these metals are infinitely recyclable and do not offer any degradation as compared to freshly mined metals.

Recycling could help India address the challenge of raw material supply for lithium batteries but the sector needs a regulatory push. Are the existing regulations enough to enforce the onus on different stakeholders?

Even though there is a long road ahead, the new Battery Waste Management Rules, 2022 is a step in the right direction to boost the recycling/e-waste management sector and achieve a circular economy. 

The Battery Waste Management Rules, 2022 include a clear outline of the responsibilities of all the key stakeholders in the value chain of a lithium-ion battery, starting from its production to its usage to its collection and finally, proper disposal via sustainable recycling practices. 

The targets set for each of these, like the minimum percentage of recycled material to be used in new batteries by OEMs and the minimum material recovery rate by recyclers, would ensure that valuable resources such as cobalt, nickel, and lithium do not end up in the landfills along with the end-of-life lithium-ion batteries. 

This is important, especially for a country like ours, because of the unavailability of natural deposits of these rare metals resulting in our dependency on other nations for imports.

As for the recycling process itself, the costs involved seem to be a deterrent. Isn’t it?

Metastable Materials has developed a new chemical-free process called ‘Integrated Carbothermal Reduction’ (ICR) to ‘mine’ metals out of scrap lithium-ion batteries. The process, developed right here in India, practically reduces the cost of recycling by half as compared to other processes in the global market. The additional advantage of ICR is that it produces materials in their standard commodity forms. This ensures flexibility for our buyers to utilize the metals in whatever form they require. 

We have been able to design our technology to be scalable and sustainable in the long run. This would help in rapid expansion.

With our upcoming recycling unit capable of handling 4-6% of India’s total demand alone in its first six months of operations, we are hoping to off-load some of the dependence of India on other countries for the supply of rare metals like cobalt, lithium, and nickel. We are also simultaneously working on establishing cleaner supply chains and alleviating some of the anxiety that is related to the safe transportation of batteries, especially end-of-life ones.

How many stages does your Integrated Carbothermal Reduction process involve?

Integrated Carbothermal Reduction is a six-step process, the first three of which remove materials like copper, aluminum, and plastics, while the final three steps involve the processing of ‘black mass’ to generate high-quality lithium, cobalt, and nickel. 

The entire process is completely chemical-free and makes use of some very smart process and mechanical engineering breakthroughs by our R&D team to achieve more than 90% material recovery. It is designed to minimize waste and produce zero effluents. We have been able to achieve this by putting extra focus on designing our equipment in such a way that our entire process is sealed from end-to-end. So, nothing gets out of the system that is not meant to.

Our philosophy of ‘Waste as Ores’ is guided by the idea that we need to look at the problem of recycling from the lens of the mining industry, as if these batteries are freshly dug out of the ground, just like ores, and how one would go about extracting the required metals out of them. In essence, we are bringing in the actual practices of the mining industry to ‘Urban Mining’.

Can the Integrated Carbothermal Reduction process be used for all lithium battery chemistries? 

Integrated Carbothermal Reduction applies to most lithium-ion battery chemistries, although the process requires some adjustments on a case-to-case basis. We are currently working on optimizing the process to make it as chemistry- and form-factor-agnostic as possible.

How do you plan to collect the dead lithium batteries?

Since Integrated Carbothermal Reduction is chemistry- and form-factor-agnostic, Metastable has an all-hands approach to the collection and use of lithium-ion batteries. We are looking to procure battery packs from not only EV and stationary storage applications but also from consumer electronics systems. That is why we are in talks with several OEMs across industries to build together a supply chain network for the collection and safe transportation of riskier end-of-life batteries.

 

 

 

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