Canadian Start-Up Looks to Change the Lithium-Ion Battery Supply Chain

A Canadian Start-up looks to change the lithium-ion battery supply chain. As lithium-ion batteries are gaining more prominence in electronic gadgets, the number of batteries that are disposed of every month is skyrocketing. Lithium-ion batteries are now used to power almost all type of gadgets, including smartphones and are also being used for other bigger electronic devices like automobiles.

Li-Cycle is a resource recovery company focused on creating a closed-loop supply chain for the lithium-ion batteries that increasingly power everything from smartphones to automobiles.

“Less than 5% of spent lithium-ion batteries are recycled today. The currently best available technology cannot economically recover critical components like lithium. As lithium-ion batteries continue to electrify our world, over 11 million tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries will be discarded through to 2030. What will happen to this vast quantity of spent lithium-ion batteries when they reach the end of their useful life?” the company website said.

Li-Cycle can currently process more than a tonne of batteries each day at its plant in Kingston, Ontario. However, as the number of batteries being used is expected to increase, the company is also planning to expand to process more than 17 tonnes.

According to sources, the company is overwhelmed with clients who have lithium-ion batteries and want to dispose of them. Other recyclers focus on smaller lithium-ion batteries and are not ready to deal with the batteries that are disposed from electric vehicles.

“In the incumbent industry, the key material they are recovering is cobalt. This is what is driving the process and economics,” the company’s co-founder who did consulting work for a number of companies in the mining and metals industry before starting Li-Cycle said.

Extracting cobalt means using pyrometallurgy, which involves volatilizing or burning the batteries at high temperatures. Despite the tremendous energy inputs, recovery in this system is low, about 30 per cent to 40 per cent, according to experts.

However, Li-Cycle has worked with collaborators to develop a process based on hydrometallurgy, or wet chemistry. They have invented a way to shred incoming batteries, reducing them into tiny pieces safely. From there, the batteries are run through a series of chemical reactions and separations. The result is recovery not only of cobalt, but also lithium, nickel and other substances, comprising 80 per cent to 100 per cent of the original battery.

“Our end products are equivalent in grade to those that would be produced from a virgin source and can go right back into the battery supply chain.” The company executive said.

Li-Cycle can recycle any lithium-ion battery and is entirely agnostic to chemistry, form factor, prior application and size. But batteries from EVs, one of Li-Cycle’s target markets, contain less cobalt and are bulkier and more difficult to process compared to those from personal electronics. Li-Cycle’s higher recovery also enables the company to charge a lower fee, which is expected to decrease over time, making it more attractive for clients.