The environmental footprint of an electric vehicle represents a sectorial industrial revolution, including the first lifecycle end of an EV battery. With existing technologies, 95% of an EV battery can be recycled for inclusion in a new EV battery and/or energy storage. The remaining 5% can be handled by third party recyclers. Because the price of mined lithium is rising exponentially, recycled EV battery materials are set to compete with mined content. The result is massive investments underway and planned for EV recycling, especially in China and Europe. The U.S federal government is supporting EV battery recycling and there is a nascent industry in Canada. But there remains a colossal challenge for the Canadian national and provincial governments to assure Canada is a major player alongside China and Europe.
With existing technologies, it is now possible to recycle 95% of an electric vehicle (EV) battery, including lithium, cobalt and nickel, for the production of new batteries, with the remaining 5% sent to third party recyclers.
This means that over the life of an EV battery, through to recycling, only 30 kg of raw materials are lost, the size of a soccer ball. By comparison, for the life span of an average internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV), the petroleum required is about 17,000 litres of fuel, the volume of a building 25 stories high. EV battery technological advancements to reduce lithium required will increase this gap.
Now, with lithium prices having increased by 80% since the beginning of 2022, battery recycling has gained in importance.
Consequently, recycled EV battery materials will eventually compete with mined sources. Thus, the value of the global lithium recycling industry may be US$18 billion by 2030.
Three Canadian EV battery recycling firms are well-advanced for the inevitable market.
One is Québec’s Lithion Recycling which hopes to establish 20 plants in urban areas around the globe by 2030.
In April 2022, construction began for the first Lithion Recycling commercial-scale facility in Montreal to reduce all battery components to black mass, a powder, thus eliminating the need for a dismantling process. The plant will begin operating in 2023 and have an annual capacity equivalent to EV batteries for 25,000 EVs.
Construction of a second plant will begin in 2023, this one to extract and purify critical metals for new batteries. The patented technology uses hydrometallurgy which filters, dissolves and purifies battery components. Plastics will be recycled separately. Completion is expected in 2025.
Responding to battery recycling legislation elsewhere, Lithion Recycling announced an agreement with Hyundai in March 2021.
Other agreements with Lithion comprise Girardin/BlueBird for its small electric school buses and Nouveau Monde Graphite. The latter is a Quebec mining company aiming to produce green battery anode material. The Nouveau Monde Graphite goal is to increase the recycled content in the transformation process.
Batteries collection points are the Spokes, where black mass is produced.
The Spokes will supply black mass to a Rochester New York Hub, targeted for commissioning in 2023. The Li-Cycle $23.3M Rochester facility will apply hydrometallurgically to recover 95% of EV battery materials for up to an equivalent of 225,000 EVs per year, at a lower cost than mined materials. There will be zero waste.
The first major breakthrough for Li-Cycle was revealed in a May 11, 2021. This pertains to a joint venture with GM and LG Energy Solution to recycle up to 100% of the scrap generated by the manufacturing of GM’s Ultium batteries from GM’s battery production plant in Lordstown, Ohio.
Another coup is an agreement with Canada’s New Flyer bus manufacturer.
European Li-Cycle Spokes are in the works for Norway and Germany to become operational in 2023.
A Li-Cycle European Hub is in the pipeline in partnership with Morrow Batteries and ECO-STOR.
Lastly, in March 2022, BASF revealed it will build an EV battery production and recycling facility in Bécancour, Quebec to be completed in 2025. The plant will produce 100,000 tonnes of cathode material annually.
With its incrementally stringent regulations necessitating a rapid and massive transition to zero-emission vehicles, China has at least a 5 year advance over the rest of the world on EVs.
In 2021 alone, EV sales in China reached 3.3 million and accounted for 22% of the light duty vehicle 2022 market up until April. Should present trends continue, China may achieve battery electric vehicle (fully electric) sales representing up to 100% of new vehicle sales by 2025. This is in addition to the over 400,000 electric buses plus commercial EVs currently on Chinese roads.
This in part explains China’s leadership in EV battery recycling.
China’s EV battery leadership also stems from requirements that EV manufacturers must be responsible for battery recycling and use Made in China batteries. The policy also directs that the design of batteries facilitates recycling.
Against this backdrop, it is estimated that there are currently 47 battery recycling companies in China.
Brunp and GEM account for 50% of this market. Brunp is a subsidiary of CATL, one of the largest EV battery companies in the world.
In October 2021 CATL and Brunp, divulged a joint venture partnership for the US$4.5 billion EV battery recycling plant in the Hubei province, the Hubei Yihua Chemical Industry.
CATL has a partnership with BASF on recycled cathode materials. As noted earlier, BASF will have a cathode material recycling plant in Bécancour, Quebec.
Finally, used EV batteries are the backbone of energy storage too. The Nanjing Jiangbei Energy Storage Power Station in the Jiangsu province is the world’s largest energy storage facility using recycled batteries.
European Union (EU)
During February 2021, the European Commission approved US$3.5 billion from 12 member states to leverage another US$11 billion in support R & D in the battery value chain, from raw materials to recycling, through to 2028.
In March 10, 2022, the EU Parliament adopted a report to regulate the entire lifecycle of batteries from design to consumption and recycling.
Too, the EU Parliament environmental committee wants batteries labelled according to carbon footprints, containing minimum levels of recycled cobalt, lead, lithium and nickel and waste collected.
Initiatives underway in the private sector include Northvolt, a new Swedish company, which hopes to supply 25 percent of European batteries by 2030, with an eventual company-wide annual capacity to 170 gigawatt-hours (GWh) produced by several production plants. Northvolt battery cells will likely become available in 2024.
The Northvolt 2030 recycling goal is to have 50% of the raw materials for new batteries, coming from recycled batteries.
Northvolt battery recycling initiatives to-date include the recycling facility, the Revolt Ett, under construction, alongside the Northvolt Ett battery production facility in Skellefteå, Sweden. It will be the world’s first giga-scale recycling facility, recycling 113 tonnes of batteries annually, once completed in 2023.
In Västerås, near Stockholm, the Revolt recycling pilot plant, integrated in the US$750 million expansion of Northvolt Labs, will supply materials for Västerås battery production. The Labs expansion commenced in Fall 2021.
In collaboration with Volkswagen, a recycling facility will be built will be built next to a Northvolt factory planned for Drei, in Heide, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, which will begin operating in 2025. Total Drei site employees will be around 3000.
As well, Northvolt plans incorporate diversification into the energy storage market, with a factory for energy storage systems in Gdansk, Poland to go into operation in 2022.
Other Northvolt recycling activities comprise Hydrovolt, a Northvolt joint venture with Hydro which began production in March 2022 at its facility in Fredrikstad, in southern Norway. Hydrovolt plans to expand across Europe to achieve a company-wide capacity equivalent to 150,000 EV batteries for 2025 and 500,000 for 2030.
Turning to European vehicle manufacturers, a leader in battery recycling leader is Volkswagen.
Volkswagen has a pilot recycling process in Salzgitter, Germany. Full-scale capacity is projected by 2030. Volkswagen intends to use recycled materials primarily for mobile energy storage. This is related to a Volkswagen Group Salzgitter battery production initiative.
In Salzgitter too, the Volkswagen Battery Centre of Excellence will address, among other things, battery recycling.
As for BMW, its European batteries presently come from outside suppliers. But BMW set up a Battery Competence Center in Munich to eventually produce batteries in-house.
To this end, BMW has teamed up with a Belgium company, Umicore, to develop battery recycling and reuse capabilities.
The Volvo Group (trucks) is experimenting with battery recycling options for heavy duty electric vehicles and energy storage.
Northvolt and Volvo automobiles have a joint venture for a new battery plant in Sweden near the main Volvo facility in Gothenburg, with construction to begin in 2023. The annual capacity will be 50 gigawatt-hours, sufficient for 50,000 EVs annually, for both the Volvo and Polestar brands.
Other European battery recycling companies include Germany’s betteries and Duesenfeld, and Snam in France.
In May 2022, US$3.1 billion was announced for EV batteries initiatives, among them, battery recycling, under the umbrella of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for US$550 billion over 5 years. A separate US$60 million will go to second life applications of used batteries.
With regard to U.S. vehicle manufacturers, the developments below are in addition to the aforementioned information on the Li-Cycle partnership with GM and LG Energy Solution on Ultium batteries.
For Tesla, its recycled batteries will eventually supply 92% of the raw materials for new batteries. Facilitating Tesla battery recycling, lithium only accounts for 1.5% of a full battery pack weight and their iron phosphate battery packs have no cobalt and no nickel.
Ford will set up a US$185 million battery competence centre, Ford Ion Park, in Southeast Michigan to begin operations in 2022. The centre will address the battery chain from mining to recycling.
As well, on U.S. battery recycling research, the California Energy Commission (CEC) offers funding for projects to improve and scale-up battery recycling.
Renov South Africa offers a different recycling approach, that of converting used Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP) batteries for applications for stationary storage.
Recycled versus mined content
With China and the European Union having requirements that EV manufacturers be responsible for recycling, these two jurisdictions have a head start on the global market.
Since EV battery recycled content will be competing with mined material, Canada has a colossal challenge to develop its recycling capabilities to compare with those of the EU, China and the U.S. Indeed, Canadian recycling activity has barely gotten started.
Canada risks leaving left behind.