Enabling India’s self-reliance in lithium battery-grade materials


pv magazine: Attero has announced the successful recovery of refined battery-grade lithium carbonate from lithium reserves found in Jammu and Kashmir. Please tell us how your recycling prowess helped in the refining capability.

We are a deep tech company with a solid focus on sustainability. We have today 39 granted global patents on recycling technologies developed in India. The patents are in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and other parts of Asia including India, USA, and Europe. And we have filed more than 200 patent applications.

We’re also the only lithium battery and e-waste recycling company in the world to get carbon credits per ton of waste recycled. The carbon grade methodology is approved by the United Nations and is based on the fact that the amount of energy involved in Attero’s processes to extract pure gold, pure copper, pure aluminum, pure cobalt, and pure lithium carbonate is significantly lower than the amount of energy involved to extract these metals from either a virgin mine or any other known secondary sources.

We have already been the leader in electronic waste recycling in India by far on any single metric, whether you look at revenue, profitability, market share, collection network across the country, revenues, or whichever ESG or IP.

On the lithium-ion battery side, our recycling technology, which has been existing and running commercially for the last few years, is the best in the world. We are today, and over the last few years, collecting all kinds of end-of-life lithium batteries and extracting pure battery-grade cobalt, battery-grade lithium carbonate, battery-grade graphite, battery-grade nickel, manganese sulfate and putting them back in the circular economy ecosystem.

Our battery recycling technology enables us to extract more than 98% of pure battery-grade materials, while internationally, the number is around 75%. So, there is significant technological arbitrage that we have built.

The same technology we have for battery recycling is being used for refining output from mines, so we’ve taken samples from the Jammu & Kashmir lithium reserves that the Government of India found out and prospected. We were able to successfully extract 200 parts per million (ppm) of pure battery-grade lithium carbonate from it.

From a mining perspective, when you mine a lithium mine, you come out with some intermediate product that needs to be refined further into battery-grade lithium carbonate. Today, 90% of that market is controlled by China, and India does not have anybody to do that. So, we wanted to see whether we could leverage our battery recycling technology for extracting lithium carbonate and use it on the intermediate output of the mine, which we were able to do. It’s a great step for the country.

We plan to have roughly 300,000 tons per annum of lithium refining capacity in the next five years.

pv magazine: What is the next step after extracting lithium carbonate? What does it take before lithium from these reserves can actually be used by battery manufacturers? 

The Government of India is planning to auction these reserves. We expect the auction to be out any time within this calendar year. Once they auction the reserves, they’ll have some more conditions for that auction part of it. That’s the commercial angle. We’ll see how that goes.

The technical angle is any reserves from the stage that they are in the Jammu & Kashmir mine to a full production mine is broadly a four-year process. That’s from a timing perspective. From a technology standpoint, there are two technologies involved. One is a pure mining technology where you crush the stone, pick out the sand, make sure that you mine it, and get it to a certain intermediate stage. That’s technology No. 1, which is essentially mechanical and some bit of chemical in nature. After that comes refining part of it, which, as I said, 90% is done by China and nobody in India does it apart from us. That refining involves chemical processes largely.

So that’s the entire process. Commercially, these mines will be auctioned. From a timing perspective, it’s four years. From a technology perspective, there are two different parts to it. First is the mining technology and second is the refining technology. Our process is extremely useful for the refining part of it.

After mining, we take the intermediate output as an input and pass it through various chemical steps to extract pure battery-grade lithium carbonate. That is essentially the work we do.

pv magazine: India has found reserves in Jammu and Kashmir and now Rajasthan also. How significant is the discovery of these reserves for India’s transition to electric mobility and net zero? 

These are two big discoveries from a lithium reserves perspective. India did not have any lithium reserves. Most of the lithium reserves are concentrated in Bolivia and Argentina and some in Australia.

So India wanted to make sure that geopolitically it’s not dependent on any other country for lithium, which is a critical material for energy transition and carbon neutrality goal achievement.

From that angle, India created a public-sector unit called Khanij Bidesh India Limited (KABIL), with Nalco and others as its shareholders. KABIL’s job was to go and buy mines outside India for lithium and cobalt and ensure India attained self-sufficiency in these materials.

Buying a mine is one part of it, and having the technology to refine it is another. With these two mines [in Jammu and Kashmir and Rajsthan] being prospected in India, at least India does not need to go out and look for lithium mines.

And with these two reserves being figured out, we are on the world’s top five reserves of lithium, which is an extremely great thing. Not only will we become self-dependent, but we can also start exporting lithium.

So, the first problem of finding the reserves is sorted out. Now, the second part of ensuring we have the right process and technology for refining them is what Attero has done.

pv magazine: Do you plan to scale up your lithium refining capacity? 

Obviously, we will need to scale up, and we are in the process of scaling up. We plan to have roughly 300,000 tons per annum of lithium refining capacity in the next five years.

PV magazine: The adoption of electric vehicles is growing in India, as is the buildup of lithium battery waste. How do you see a true recycling mechanism in this entire ecosystem? 

Electric vehicle adoption in India is bound to grow mainly because of two factors. One is climate change. Electric vehicles are better for the environment, and there’s a growing recognition of that. So, both from a consumer standpoint as well as from an automobile OEM standpoint, everybody is keen to move towards electric vehicles rather than Internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

Second, the government is pushing electrification [of vehicles] to have a better environment in place and reduce the nation’s oil imports bill.

With both of these drivers, an EV boom in India was supposed to happen. It has already happened in two-wheelers. And it’s happening in four-wheelers and large-format vehicles as we speak. In fact, a significant number of electric buses are being ordered by various state governments.

For that electric boom, the battery is the most critical component. And for the battery, the most critical components are lithium and cobalt. Attero, as a technology leader, is making sure that India can be self-reliant in both these critical materials without depending on China or any other country.

PV magazine: What are you doing to make the entire recycling process low-cost, sustainable, and energy-efficient? 

By design, our process is low-cost and energy-efficient. If you look at the Capex per ton of lithium battery recycling, our capex is at least 45% lower than anybody else in the world, including companies in China, USA and Europe. Our revenue efficiency, which is related to extraction efficiency, is 35% higher than anybody else in the world.

PV magazine: A lot of investment is being made in lithium battery recycling globally, but the extraction efficiency still needs to be improved. How does Attero stand out with its patented method?

Rightly said, more than $4 billion has been invested in lithium battery recycling globally. We are also in the process of raising various kinds of capital sources. We are a profitable company. Whether it’s debt or equity, we continue to engage with the right stakeholders.

From a technology standpoint, worldwide, even after a $4 billion investment, all the companies are sitting at a maximum 75% recovery efficiency. Attero can recover 98%. So, we already have a significant technological advantage based in India compared to anybody else in the world.

Today, we’re recycling all kinds of lithium batteries. We don’t distinguish between various types of batteries.

pv magazine: As you expand, how do you plan to collect the battery waste and recycle it? 

Right now also, we have a significant collection network of battery waste. The battery waste comes to us from four different channels. One is the e-waste aggregator channel we’ve already built, where we collect nearly 100,000 tonnes of e-waste every year. The same channel can supply around 20,000 tons of lithium battery waste annually. These aggregators essentially collect from the dealers, some consumers, and other kinds of service networks.

The second is directly from manufacturers, whether OEM manufacturers or the cell manufacturers outside India that we already have contracts with.

The third is from the service centers or various OEMs.

All of this battery collection network that we’ve already built gives us a substantial input volume based on the capacity we’re building.

pv magazine: Going forward, how do you see Attero’s role in achieving India’s electric mobility and net-zero emissions goals? Do you also plan to venture into battery cell manufacturing? 

We don’t plan to get into battery cell manufacturing as of now. Our hands are full with ensuring we can get the best battery-grade materials out there. We are looking at all kinds of inputs for getting battery-grade materials, whether from end-of-life lithium batteries, lithium mines, or mine tailings. So, whatever input is there, our job right now is to ensure that we can extract the maximum amount of battery-grade materials and put these back in the circular economy. And we’re focused on that.

Attero’s role is super-critical today for the world and especially for India, from a circular economy and net-zero perspective. The more we’re able to recycle efficiently at a low cost, at a low opex, and put it back in the circular economy, that’s a fantastic job. For India, it becomes even more critical that an Indian company does this because most of the battery-grade material output comes from China.


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