The UK’s electric vehicle sector is set for rapid expansion over the next decade, owing to the UK’s commitment to Net Zero Carbon emissions by 2050. With a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars coming into force in 2030, the need for a reliable and sustainable supply of EV batteries has never been more pressing.
This is resulting in unprecedented technological innovation within the sector. However one major challenge has always been that indispensable battery metals – such as cobalt and nickel – are in extremely short supply and largely extracted overseas.
To mitigate this potential bottleneck, UK-based critical metals specialist Altilium Metals Ltd has developed a method through which the elements critical for EV batteries can be reused.
The process, currently being validated and optimised under a research programme with the University of Plymouth, means that end-of-life lithium-ion EV batteries can be recycled through the extraction and recovery of the lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese components.
The spent cathode material is leached in acid, with the resulting metals and lithium being separated by selective precipitation and the graphite extracted as a purified solid.
The final product is a chemical combination of metals and lithium which can be sold direct to battery manufacturers (ready-made) at a premium of 30%, compared to pure metals which requires further processing.
It is estimated that the EV battery supply chain will be worth up to £12 billion to the UK economy by 2025. However, to satisfy expected future consumer demand, it is forecast that the UK will require seven gigafactories (large-scale EV battery manufacturing plants) by 2040.
The UK has already secured its first gigafactory in Northumberland, with global car giant Nissan recently confirming a £1 billion commitment to produce EV batteries and a new electric car at its base of operations in Sunderland.
To support those, Altilium is developing a pilot plant scheduled to be operational by mid-2022, which will be the first demonstration in the UK of EV battery recycling under commercial conditions which is a significant innovation in sustainable energy.
The pilot plant completion will trigger the investment decision for the first large-scale plant in the UK processing battery waste from 20,000 EVs per year and the company’s ambition is to have a recycling plant at each of the UK gigafactories by 2040.
Kamran Mahdavi, Chief Executive Officer at Altilium Metals Ltd, said: “Recent climate events around the world have reinforced the crucial nature of this kind of innovation. This innovation will lower the cost of battery production in the UK and secure a supply of these critical metals which would be a major step towards attracting battery manufacturers to the UK and maintaining a car industry With environmental factors playing a key role in EV production, the novel recycling process also reduces carbon emissions by 38% compared to extracting virgin metals.
“The mining sector will come under immense pressure to supply the world with the necessary metals that enables a transition to green energy as we reduce the reliance on fossil fuels. Altilium Metals practices responsible mining to ensure environmental laws are strictly adhered to as the demand for critical metals rocket from the current levels of production. Our philosophy is that every industry which is reliant on the mining sector should be a circular one where the significant amount of metals needed and already used in products and technologies can be recycled.”
Dr Christian Marston, Chief Scientist at Altilium Metals Ltd, added: “From our processing of ores and recycling of mine waste we have developed a standard hydrometallurgical process to extract critical metals from spent EV batteries. This technology offers the highest level of recycling efficiency, we believe recycling 80% of the battery value, and setting a new global standard. The process is considerably more advanced than others since it recovers high value non-metallic components such a graphite which is a source of competitive advantage since the trend is to lower metal content batteries.”
The University of Plymouth is among the world’s leading institutions in circular economy research and innovation, with a particular focus on the sustainable use and reuse of a variety of consumer products.
Dr Lee Durndell, Lecturer in Chemistry who leads the University’s work with Altilium, added: “To achieve UK Net Zero Carbon emissions within the automotive and chemical manufacturing sectors, development of truly circular manufacturing practices are key. Our novel process looks to minimise reliance on imported battery-critical raw materials from overseas, ensuring future production and energy security, as we transition towards an electric vehicle dominant transport sector.”