By 2030, there will be 30 million electric vehicles (EVs) in Europe alone. This means a 14-fold increase in demand for batteries.
With this rising demand comes a heightened need for the primary metals those batteries are made of. The future supply of lithium, as well as nickel, cobalt, and graphite have moved centre stage in public discussions, while manganese, copper, and aluminium also have a role to play, according to a special report by the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR).
What makes this challenge more interesting is that, in parallel with growing demand, there is an expectation for those metals to be sourced responsibly, from carbon-neutral mines and, ideally, not from the far ends of the world.
The European Commission has proposed a new regulation for batteries which is currently being scrutinised by EU institutions and expected to come into effect in late 2022 or early 2023, which aims to ensure a ‘cradle-to-grave’ life cycle approach for batteries while also aiming at establishing full battery value chains within Europe. This means that battery demand in Europe is to be met with traceable, sustainably, and preferably domestically, produced or recycled materials.
Is there any chance of meeting these ambitious targets?
Thanks to bold and innovative ideas and new business models emerging along the battery value chain, it seems the chances of success may be increasing.
That is why this article shines light on the positives: four case studies of innovations to power the EV-future, in Europe and beyond.
Circular business models for battery metals: re-mining tailings
Toronto-based clean tech company, EnviroGold Global Limited, has developed an interesting circular business model. The company announced in March this year that it will produce precious (gold, silver) and battery metals (copper, zinc) based on the reprocessing of mine waste from two tailings sites in Canada.
Production from the Hellyer and Buchans tailings reprocessing projects “are expected to show a 96% reduction in greenhouse gas intensity per gold-ounce equivalent produced and an over 80% reduction in energy intensity relative to industry averages for conventional mining,” said the company.
In addition to extracting the contained metals in a way that is more sustainable than traditional linear pathways, the company remediates the tailings and reduces the environmental impact of legacy mines in the process. Suitable tailing sites are identified by leveraging mine and mill production data and geological records.
Ambitions to remine tailings aren’t limited to Canada, though.
In Germany, a broad consortium of companies, research and public institutions, recomine, is working to find new solutions for contaminated mine sites, combining remining and remediation. By creating new business opportunities from remining, the consortium aims to offset remediation costs and improve acceptance of mining projects.
Though not focused specifically on battery metals, projects like these point to a new avenue for revenue generation fuelled by the rising demand for battery metals and other minerals required for clean tech technologies.
Uncovering new primary sources: CO2-neutral lithium production from geothermal brines
Germany is host to another new, innovative and climate-friendly business model for producing primary lithium as well.
German-Australian Vulcan Energy plans to extract lithium from geothermal brine in the Upper Rhine Valley, which boasts one of the world’s richest reserves of lithium in geothermal brine.
Based on a minimally invasive process that was developed at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Vulcan Energy is currently constructing five geothermal power plants in the area. With production expected to start in 2025, the plants could supply 40,000t of lithium hydroxide per year; enough to supply lithium for about one million EV-batteries per year.
According to Euractiv, an independent pan-European media network, the company is optimistic that it can meet 100% of German lithium demand and 25% of the demand in Europe in the near future. The lithium produced is CO2 neutral or even CO2 negative, as only 50% of the energy produced in the geothermal stations is used for lithium production, while the other 50% is fed to the grid (strengthening its business case).
Last but not least, the lithium is produced locally and doesn’t have to be shipped around the globe. That is part of the reason why German car makers have already expressed interest in sourcing Vulcan Energy’s carbon-neutral, locally produced lithium, according to Charged Electric Vehicles Magazine.
This innovative business model has already led Cornwall-based Geothermal Energy Ltd in the UK to follow suit. The company, which is already operating a geothermal plant, has discovered very high concentrations of lithium in its brine; possibly the highest ever discovered to date.
Plans by Geothermal Energy Ltd to complete four new geothermal sites across the country by 2026 are already well advanced. These plants should not only power 45,000 homes but also produce 4,000t of lithium annually, in addition to 1,500t that will be produced by the already existing geothermal plant, a recent article by Euractiv explained.
Innovation through integration: from primary material production to recycling with minimal footprint
US-based American Battery Technology Company (ABTC) chose yet another business model to help overcome domestic supply challenges and provide ‘clean’ battery metals, especially lithium, with a minimal footprint.
The core of ABTC’s business model is diversification to include recycling, primary metals manufacturing and primary resource development. Innovation is driven within each of these three pillars.
With respect to recycling, the company is currently implementing a project, financially supported by the United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC), to commercially demonstrate an integrated lithium-ion battery recycling system.
The system includes the production of battery cathode metal products from recycled battery materials (in collaboration with German chemical giant BASF), the fabrication of battery cells from these recycled materials, and the testing against cells made from virgin sourced metals (in collaboration with cell technology developer C4V).
The company stated in a press release in November 2021 that the objective of the project is to demonstrate that battery grade materials can be manufactured from recycled metals at lower cost, lower environmental impact, and with higher domestically sourced content than conventional virgin sourced metals.
With respect to the processing technology that uses less chemicals and has a smaller environmental footprint, ABTC utilises a selective leaching process for the low-cost extraction of lithium from claystone sedimentary resources. According to the company, it “allows for significantly lower consumption of acid, lower levels of contaminants in the generated leach liquor, and lower overall costs of production”.
Thirdly, the company intends to strengthen the responsibly sourced domestic supply of lithium by conducting a comprehensive drilling program in the Tonopah Flats lithium exploration project. The project is located in Nevada and should provide the primary materials for battery cathode-grade lithium hydroxide from sedimentary claystone, for which ABTC has already developed a proprietary processing technology.
Process innovation: low-cost and low-emission precursor material production
Further down the value chain, Pure Battery Technologies (PBT), a start-up founded in 2018 and headquartered in Brisbane, Australia, has patented a new method to produce precursor material for batteries, required for cathode production. This emits 70% less CO2, uses no hazardous chemicals and is more cost-effective compared to standard practice.
In this process, developed together with the University of Queensland, PBT applies a selective acid leaching (SAL) and combined leaching (CL) process, which removes the need for chemical solvents and much of the energy input.
In the conventional refinery process, the metal mix of nickel, manganese and cobalt, which occur naturally in the earth as so-called ‘black mass’, are first separated from each other, then freed from impurities to finally be combined again. This requires a lot of chemicals, heat and pressure.
PBT’s new process dissolves the impurities from the concentrate and then filters out the metals in a second step, using only small amounts of harmless oxidising agents, which can be flushed out at the end. What’s more, this process can be applied to virgin material as well as for recycling the black mass, i.e. the cathode waste from old batteries as part of a cost-effective and low-carbon recycling process.
PBT is collaborating with Germany’s CRONIMET Group, one of the world’s largest nickel recyclers, to expand into the European EV market, having just bought a facility in Hagen, Germany, that is intended to produce 10,000t of precursor material by the end of 2023, the Australian German Chamber stated in this article.
In addition, the company is speaking with materials and recycling specialist Umicore and BASF about incorporating the technology into their production process, according to this Reuters News article. This may come in handy for Umicore, which has just entered into a joint venture with German car maker Volkswagen to establish production of precursor and cathode material in Europe.
Similarly, BASF plans to produce precursor material in Finland and innovations, such as the process offered by PBT, may provide the opportunity to make strides in decreasing Europe’s dependence on other world regions, in particular China, for cathode material.
As the saying goes: necessity is the mother of invention.
And it goes without saying that there is a pressing necessity for innovative and transformative ideas, new business models and new approaches to known problems in metals production.
While the challenges remain complex and the innovative business approaches presented in this article are not enough to meet the projected demand alone, they point in the right direction and hopefully they can inspire more business leaders to follow and explore new opportunities off the beaten paths.