President & CEO, Lithion Recycling
Lithium-ion battery recycling is typically inefficient and unsustainable. Here’s how the pioneering Canadian company Lithion is changing the game.
As nations move to establish ambitious emissions targets — including Canada’s goal to shift towards 100 percent zero-emissions cars by 2040 — it’s becoming clear that electric vehicles (EVs) are a crucial part of an environmentally-viable future.
However, these vehicles face an important set of problems on the road to true sustainability. Their large lithium-ion batteries are notoriously difficult to recycle, and the mining and manufacturing process for new EV batteries is energy-intensive. Moreover, there’s a pending raw materials-supply bottleneck that threatens manufacturers — global demand for cobalt, lithium, nickel, and graphite is expected to far outstrip supply in the years between now and 2040, according to BloombergNEF.
Together, these problems deter some would-be EV buyers who worry that the life cycle of their vehicle’s battery — and the mining required to produce it in the first place — is more environmentally deleterious than the alternative.
The solution? A sustainable, economically-viable resource recovery and management strategy for EV batteries. The key is to repurpose old batteries by safely shredding, separating, and purifying them to efficiently harvest their finite raw materials without degrading their quality, which will allow them to loop back into the supply chain — a true circular economy. Lithion Recycling, a Canadian recycling company, has developed a disruptive patented process to accomplish just that.
Giving lithium-ion batteries eternal life
Most recycling for lithium-ion batteries relies on energy-intensive combustion, a highly inefficient method that recovers only between 40–50 percent of the battery’s raw materials. In contrast, Lithion’s method relies on a process called hydrometallurgy, which effectively separates lithium-ion battery’s valuable components without the need for combustion.
Lithion’s hydrometallurgy process is significantly more efficient than combustion since it recovers 95% of a battery’s raw materials like lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite without reducing their quality. The resulting components are on par with new materials that come from a mine. This means that batteries with recycled components won’t suffer a decrease in quality — which makes the process profitable, even at a small scale.
“We have to be able to produce more EV batteries to serve the adoption of emissions-free transportation technologies by society,” says Benoit Couture, Lithion’s President and CEO. “We designed our process to ensure that we can extract and generate a lot of value by producing battery-grade materials, which in turn ensures that they can loop back into the battery manufacturing supply chain. In doing so, we’ll ease pressure on the depletion of raw materials.”
On a larger scale, the widespread implementation of this process will significantly decrease the need for mined materials for EV batteries. And since the process itself is less greenhouse gas-intensive than both combustion and mining, the result is a net reduced carbon footprint for EVs. The process is also safer for workers than traditional approaches since it doesn’t require manual dismantling of toxic and dangerous components.
From pilot plant to worldwide deployment
Historically, hydrometallurgy wasn’t the first choice for lithium-ion battery recycling because it’s much more complex to implement than traditional combustion-based processes. Lithion relied on the dedication and expertise of its technical and engineering team to not only develop an innovative process but also to plan to implement it at scale in a way that’s both sustainable and profitable.
In 2023 Lithion is set to launch its first commercial recycling plant, drawing on data from a highly-successful Quebec industrial-scale pilot plant created in 2019. Its goal is worldwide deployment, through licensing agreements, with a target of 20 recycling plants. Leveraging the forces of its future licensee network in the automobile and recycling industries is what Lithion believes to be the most efficient strategy to tackle in time for the upcoming wave of batteries. These plants will be strategically located in areas with high EV-density, as well as near battery manufacturers, to further cut down on transportation emissions.
Safe, efficient recycling processes like the one Lithion is pioneering are crucial pieces of the circular economy puzzle, which experts say is humanity’s best bet for a sustainable future.