Fortum, a Finland-based clean energy and electric vehicle charging company that is involved with a plan to install wireless EV chargers for taxis in Oslo, has also created a new process that makes more than 80% of EV battery materials recyclable. In particular, it focuses on recapturing the nickel, cobalt, and other metals that are associated with environmental or humanitarian concerns. Current EU rules only require 50% of battery materials to be recycled.
In a press release, Kalle Saarimaa, vice president of Fortum Recycling and Waste, says, “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.”
To achieve a recycling rate of more than 80%, Fortum uses a low-CO2 hydro-metallurgical recycling process. First, the batteries are made safe for mechanical treatment, then the plastics, aluminium, and copper inside are separated and directed to their own recycling areas.
The chemical and mineral components of the battery form a “black mass” that is a mixture of lithium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel in different ratios. Nickel and cobalt are the most valuable, but are also the most difficult to recover. Using technology developed by Finnish company Crisolteq, Fortum uses chemical precipitation methodology that allows these minerals to be recovered and delivered to battery manufacturers for use in new batteries.
Crisolteq and Fortum have built a hydro-metallurgical recycling facility in Harjavalta, Finland, where that “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 says.
If some forecasts for the number of EVs on the road 10 years from now are accurate, there will be 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. Mining operations to obtain those elements would see an increase in greenhouse gas emissions of 500% from this sector. By using recycled materials, CO2 emissions from battery production can be reduced by as much as 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,” Saarimaa suggests.
Not content to focus just on recycling, Fortum is also working on “second life” applications for batteries that are no longer satisfactory for use in vehicles but can still be used in energy storage roles. The company is work to promote more storage functions for depleted EV batteries.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson from what Fortum is doing is its focus on promoting a circular economy. If the Earth has any chance of addressing the perils of warming temperatures, a paradigm shift in how business is transacted will be essential. Business as usual is killing us all. It’s amazing how many people are okay with that and can’t be bothered to understand what is happening right in front of their eyes.