The UK’s first battery recycling plant opens
s Recyclus opens Britain's first battery-recycling plant, there is more to be done to combat our growing waste pile of lithium-ion cells.
“When the rotor starts to crush the cells, you can see the sparks and a beginning of a flame,” says Mick Pickard, chief technical design officer for Recyclus Group, as he gestures at a CCTV screen. “It never gets anywhere, though, because of the nitrogen.”
The knobbly, two-metre-wide, 10-tonne rotor looks like some sort of Bond-villain weapon as it crushes a conveyor belt’s worth of lithium-ion (Li-ion) cells. “No, Mister Bond, I expect you to die …”
You can’t see it for yourself as the process takes place in an inert nitrogen-gas atmosphere so, in theory, there should be no flames. The fact that there are goes some way to explaining why the UK needs to address the recycling of the increasing number of spent lithium-ion cells out there safely, without fires or sparks. Other excellent reasons include raw material supply security, and sheer good citizenship.
This is Britain’s first lithium-ion battery recycling centre, recently opened at a former waste-oil recycling plant in Wolverhampton - only a matter of weeks before JLR’s new UK-based battery gigafactory was confirmed.
Licensed to recycle up to 22,000 tonnes of Li-ion cells a year, which equates to about 8,300 tonnes on a single shift, the plant is also permitted to store up to 100 tonnes of Li-ion cells on site. Storage happens in special silos divided by thick concrete dividing blast walls, and monitored 24 hours a day with CCTV and temperature sensors.
Once the battery has been dismantled and shredded, it’s then processed to form a material known as ‘Black Mass’. It consists of 75 per cent graphite and 25 per cent valuable metals in powdered form, with each grain about 250 microns across. Exact proportions are not exact because of the different make-up of the cells, but typically the 25 per cent metal content of the black mass can yield 10 per cent cobalt, eight per cent nickel, two percent manganese and three per cent lithium.
Apart from providing long-life power sources for everything from button cells, power tools, garden equipment, mobile phones and computers, e-bikes and scooters, Li-ion cells are also part of the future of transport in the UK, the EU and around the world. While there are a few cars and commercials using cobalt-free Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) cells, Li-ion cells are in the majority for electric vehicles (EVs), from Porsche to Vauxhall, Rolls-Royce to Peugeot. Automotive demand for Li-ion cells is estimated to rise from 700 gigawatt hours last year, to 4.7 terabytes by 2030 and the market value is expected to rise equally precipitously; from $48 billion last year to $228 billion by 2030.
And as the world adopts ever more Li-ion cells and exhausted cells are fed into the scrappage industry, this recycled Black Mass will be required to ease the pressure on mining new materials for cells and to provide some independence from countries such as China, which has a global domination of the rare-earth metals market and recently limited its exports of germanium and gallium, which are used in the semi-conductor industry.
There are variety of different specific Li-ion chemistries out there and the Recyclus plant is authorised to feed the five most common into its machine, to be recycled into black mass and hopefully back into new battery cells, although the full circular recycling path has yet to be established in Europe.
While most Li-ion cells are largely safe in operation, even when they get old, there are risks, mainly associated with short circuiting. This can result in what is called thermal runaway, where the cells heat up and expand very rapidly, which often results in an explosion of flammable gas and fragments of battery casing, followed by a high temperature metal fire, which can result in temperatures as high as 2,000 degrees Centigrade. Such infernos are exceedingly difficult to extinguish as the cells can break down into oxygen and combustible fuel, which means they end up feeding themselves.
In March this year, over 200 New York Fire Department firefighters attended a fire suspected to have been caused by a single e-scooter battery – the entire building was destroyed.
“In all of these lithium-ion fires, it is not a slow burn. There’s not a small amount of fire, it literally explodes,” said Laura Kavanagh, Fire Department commissioner. “It’s a tremendous volume of fire as soon as it happens, and it’s very difficult to extinguish and so it’s particularly dangerous.”
The London Fire Brigade has also found itself attending an increasing number of e-bike/scooter fires, with incidents up 60 per cent in 2023 or one every two days.
What’s more, the storage of such old batteries isn’t entirely risk free and with no viable recycling industry or entirely safe means of transportation, many firms find themselves storing exhausted batteries on their own premises.
“An awful lot of batteries are being stored on site in sea containers,” says Robin Brundle co-founder and director of Recyclus. “There is a huge pent-up demand for safe recycling.”
As well as recycling Li-ion cells into black mass, Recyclus has developed what it claims are safe ways of transporting potentially hazardous batteries in its Libox steel containers, into which batteries are packed in between silicon-dioxide packing material that melts and smoothers a fire if it should break out.
In tests, these boxes have successfully contained a battery fire, and kept the box surface temperatures to just 90 degC at worst. There is no legal requirement for such specialist transport measures to be used in the UK, however.
As we outlined in March, there are issues with recycling black mass, not least the economics of doing it, but Brundle is adamant that there is money to be made. He points out that the raw material for batteries using mined material is about £50,000 a tonne with an enhanced carbon-dioxide footprint, compared with black mass which retails at about £15,000 to £20,000 a tonne with a lower CO2 footprint. “We’re making good margins,” he says.
Mindful of the forthcoming EU regulations, as well as the rising price of raw materials and what looks like a growing battle to secure supplies of raw materials, there’s a rush to secure supplies of black mass. Mining giants such as Glencore (which runs a battery shredding facility in Poland) as well as battery manufacturers and car makers are now bidding against each other for supply contracts to feed a future operation to recover the rare metals and elements.
While the Recyclus system is cleverly sized (so that it can be moved around to deal with particular battery stores on site and then moved on), and economical as it uses heat to dry the black mass and also retains the battery electrolyte for recycling, there’s still that issue over the economic cost of recovering the metals. Existing sites in China, Japan, and South Korea tend to integrate their black-mass treatment in a hydrometallurgical process though that process tends to lose the electrolyte.
Europe is still in the infancy for recycling vehicle batteries, but it will come. In the UK over one million cars are scrapped each year and, in the future, that total will include a significant and growing proportion of battery electric cars - all with batteries weighing between a third and three-quarters of a tonne.
As we look at the big green recycling machine, it’s hard not to think of Chief Brodie in Jaws, and I turn to Pickard. “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” I say. He nods…
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