Lithium battery recycling leveraging Australian resources sector know-how

By Katharine Hole, Chief Executive Officer, Association for The Battery Recycling Industry

Australian lithium battery recycling startups are competing in a high-pressure global race to recover the critical minerals from electric vehicles (EVs) and energy storage batteries. 

Our hydrometallurgical know-how is providing a strong foundation for novel sustainable critical mineral recovery technology development, patent registration, and follow-on investment in recycling plants.

Importantly, the development of this technology delivers the twin benefits of an Australian sovereign capability to recapture valuable critical minerals – in particular, cobalt – while at the same time giving rise to a potential new technology export market.

Public announcements of startup and university collaboration models include the following:

The University of Newcastle and Battery Pollution Technologies are working to develop a low‑CAPEX/low-carbon footprint vertically integrated mechanical shredding and battery metals (lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite) extraction operational solution. All feasibility testing, including successful black mass separation, has been completed with the Phase 1 hydrometallurgical pilot plant under development and anticipated to be commissioned during the first half of 2024. In contrast to other technologies, Battery Pollution Technology’s approach to the hydrometallurgical process is to create as low an energy consumption/low carbon footprint as possible, which the company believes is in contrast to many of the other battery metals recovery processes being promoted.

The University of Adelaide and IonDrive Technologies are partnering through a $3.5-million investment in the Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Battery Recycling. The project will develop advanced manufacturing processes for recovery of critical minerals from recycled lithium-ion battery materials for use in sustainable energy storage manufacturing. The process uses organic solvents in a closed-circuit process, and has a much smaller environmental footprint than conventional hydrometallurgical processes with lower energy requirements and minimal waste.

These companies and seven other Association for the Battery Recycling Industry (ABRI) members are investing in a range of technology to support the lithium battery recycling sector. Technology development includes containers to support safe transport in line with the dangerous goods code, de‑energisation, robotics and disassembly, repurposing for energy storage systems, battery and mineral tracking and tracing, and container size recycling solutions for regional areas.

Many of these technologies are as relevant for front‑end battery management on mine sites, as well as the recycling sector. Safe handling and management is a common challenge for the mining and the recycling sectors.

The race for lithium battery recycling technology leadership is tough. Globally, government and corporate circular economy, net zero and critical mineral supply chain security goals are turbocharging billions in investment for research and development, and scale up. Commitments are ambitious:

By 2030, Europe will require EVs to use six per cent recycled lithium content, and India will require EV batteries to have 20 per cent recycled content. Both jurisdictions also have similar requirements for industrial batteries.

In the United States, the Inflation Reduction Act provides for significant tax credits for recycled battery materials (for example, lithium, cobalt and nickel). A further $126 million has been invested in nine programs through combined corporate and government commitments to advance EV recycling and re-use.

The common mantra among EV companies is: re‑use, repurpose (for alternative uses, such as energy storage), and recycle (when there’s no alternative option), with one company targeting 2030 for a climate-neutral car.

For Australian lithium battery recycling startups, the support framework is less clear cut, with no dedicated strategy support to develop lithium battery recycling at scale and recover the critical minerals. As an example, funding for the sector is generally through critical mineral mining sector programs or waste/circular economy programs, none of which have a dedicated funding stream or recognise the urgency for lithium battery recycling industry development.

In Australia, an estimated 20,000 tonnes of energy storage and EV batteries will need recycling by 2029/30. While there is debate as to the timing and volumes, it is clear that batteries will be coming through in large volumes, and the industry needs to be ready to manage these volumes. It is a race against time to obtain planning approvals and secure funding in a highly competitive global market where Europe, the United States and Asia are providing strong policy and financial support. 

While the EV and energy storage batteries won’t come through for recycling at volume until the later part of the decade, the industry needs to be stood up at scale now. Large format battery recycling growth is more than doubling, albeit from a low base. EV and energy storage batteries are trickling through for recycling as part of recall, damaged product, accidents and/or other issues. These batteries need to be recycled and not sent to landfill, where they cause fires and the hazardous chemicals will leach into the environment.

Investing in the lithium battery recycling industry is not picking a ‘technology winner’ – a common concern in government industry policy. It is a necessity. There is no argument that lithium batteries will be rolled out in volume and need recycling. Battery chemistries may change over the coming decade, but lithium battery stocks will be significant and the materials in them must be recovered. 

Australia’s near neighbours in South-East Asia and the South Pacific are also looking at Australia for solutions. ABRI receives requests for recycling assistance, hydrometallurgical technology, and best practice battery disassembly and de-energisation processes from our neighbours. The industry is also working with the Export Council of Australia to support business with export opportunities into the Middle East and Europe, as well as Asia.

This year is shaping up to be another momentous one for the lithium battery recycling sector. ABRI is watching the following trends, and is providing expert advice and assistance to members and governments to successfully navigate the structural change underway:

Increased investment in lithium battery recycling infrastructure and ongoing technology innovation across Australia. Investment support for industry to be ready at scale and take advantage of export opportunities is a high ABRI priority, as well as navigating planning and environmental approval frameworks. This is not a simple issue; it is particularly complicated by any need for international equipment acquisition – which is falling foul of highly dislocated international shipping movements (with the Red Sea/Suez Canal and Panama Canal issues as examples).

Mounting interest from international investors in Australian battery recycling technology and investment opportunities. ABRI will continue to provide introductions to Australian battery recycling members, and work with the Export Council of Australia on export and foreign investment opportunities.

Growing original equipment manufacturer and corporate requests for Australian battery recycling services, and for evidence that batteries have been recycled at end of life (i.e., tracking). This is happening across all battery chemistries, and Australia is here simply falling in line with global trends.

Lithium derived from recycled batteries is a blip compared with lithium from mining; however, it is an exciting space – the next decade will prove transformational. 

Related Articles

Shifting sands

Shifting sands

By Anthony Fensom Australia’s silica sand mining industry is on a growth trajectory, with a takeover bid and a raft of new projects sparking...

read more

Be the first to find out when the next edition is released

* indicates required