Finnish innovation boosts battery recycling rate to over 80%

Electrification will rapidly increase the need for batteries. A new solution by Nordic clean energy company Fortum claims to make over 80% of the electric vehicle (EV) battery recyclable, returning the scarce metals back into circulation and resolving the sustainability gap by reducing the need to mine cobalt, nickel, and other metals.

There are very few working, economically viable technologies for recycling the majority of materials used in lithium-ion batteries. We saw a challenge that was not yet solved and developed a scalable recycling solution for all industries using batteries,” says Kalle Saarimaa, Vice President, Fortum Recycling and Waste.

According to one forecast by the International Energy Agency, the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the world’s roads will increase from 3 million to 125 million by 2030. Batteries powering electric vehicles consume huge amounts of plastics, metals and scarce minerals. The current EU regulation on the recycling rate for batteries is only 50% of the total weight of the battery. That is not enough to capture the valuable materials in the batteries.

A new kind of recycling solution?
Fortum says it achieves the high recycling rate of 80% with a low-CO2 hydrometallurgical recycling process. The batteries are first made safe for mechanical treatment, with plastics, aluminium and copper separated and directed to their own recycling processes.

The chemical and mineral components of the battery form a ‘black mass’ that typically consists of a mixture of lithium, manganese, cobalt and nickel in different ratios. Of these, nickel and especially cobalt are the most valuable, but also difficult to recover.

Fortum says it has a unique recovery process, involving chemical precipitation methodology that allows these minerals to be recovered and delivered to battery manufacturers to be reused in producing new batteries. This technology was developed by the Finnish growth company Crisolteq.

Most of today’s recycling solutions for EV batteries are not able to recover these scarce metals. Together with Crisolteq, Fortum already has a hydrometallurgical recycling facility in Harjavalta, Finland, where the black mass is treated on an industrial scale.

“Circular economy in its strictest sense means recycling an element to its original function or purpose. When we discuss the recycling of lithium-ion batteries, the ultimate aim is for the majority of the battery’s components to be recycled to new batteries,” Saarimaa continues.

Fortum is also piloting so-called ‘second life’ applications for batteries; in these applications, the EV batteries are used in stationary energy storages after they are no longer fit for their original purpose.

Putting scarce minerals back into circulation
If the forecasts on the increase in the number of EVs by 2030 hold true, it would mean an 800% increase in the demand for nickel and manganese and a 150% increase in the demand for cobalt for the production of new batteries. These scarce metals are mined from very few locations, and mining them would increase the greenhouse gas emissions from their production by 500%.

Using recycled materials reduces also the CO2 emissions from battery production up to 90%.

“Limited availability and the environmental impacts of mining mean that recycling these scarce elements back to battery manufacturing is key to reducing the environmental impacts of battery use throughout the lifecycle. If we don’t get the materials back into circulation, we will run out of materials,” concludes Saarimaa.

The chain of stakeholders
Achieving a true circular economy for batteries depends on synergic partnerships with battery manufacturers, the car industry, recycling companies and start-ups. The EU can also play a significant role in setting ambitious recycling targets for batteries. Fortum’s invitation to “Join the change for a cleaner world” goes out to everyone committed to solving the sustainability challenges related to using, manufacturing and recycling batteries.