Electra extends black mass recycling pilot
Promising results will see trials continue
Canadian battery materials firm Electra will extend its black mass recycling project in Ontario after findings from a trial run exceeded expectations. Its pilot recycling project has confirmed “improved recoveries of high-value elements, higher metal content in saleable products produced, and reduced use of reagents”.
“The improvements pave the way for higher-quality customer products and improved economics for continuous battery materials recycling operations,” the company says.
Electra’s black mass recycling project is designed to recover high value elements found in recycled lithium-ion batteries — including lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, graphite and copper — at the firm’s refinery complex north of Toronto. Electra uses a proprietary metallurgic process to recover elements from black mass at its Ontario facility.
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The project began as a trial in 2022. After the promising initial findings, it will be extended until an unspecified point. In August, the firm tweaked slightly its plans to raise an additional C$20mn ($15mn) to put towards additional funding for the project.
The company says that the recovery rate of key “high value elements” has increased, specifically announcing that rate of manganese recovered at the plant has exceeded the rates achieved in lab conditions by over 50pc.
Furthermore, the quality of nickel-cobalt mixed hydroxide precipitate (MHP) obtained during recycling has improved, with the metal content of the extracted MHP increasing “in the range of 5-10pc since the start of the trial”.
MHP is a diluted nickel product which can be used as cathode material for LFP batteries, approximately 20 tonnes of which has been shipped by Electra to its customers to-date. According to Will Talbot, principal analyst at consultancy Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, MHP “has become the key input for battery-grade nickel sulphate production, overtaking Class I nickel metal”.
Electra has processed 40 tonnes of black mass material to date in a plant scale setting, which the company says is the first time this has been done in North America. On top of the promising results in metal recovery, Mark Trevisiol, Electra’s vice-president of project development, hailed improvements in the company’s overall efficiency, brought about by recycling internal water streams and improved washing of saleable residues from the recycling process.
Over 90pc of all cobalt, nickel, copper and lithium in lithium-ion batteries can be recovered to produce more batteries, according to Brussels-based consultancy Transport and Environment (T&E). “Developing new mines will take time — the used battery is the best mine for a new battery today and will be in the future,” T&E says.
An industry coalition including T&E last week told the European Commission that it must act to limit the exports of black mass material to Asia to allow European companies to capitalise on the potential of a widespread European recycling industry. “[Europe’s] battery waste (and therefore [its] critical metals) is first shredded in Europe, but the valuable waste, or ‘black mass’, from them is then sent abroad for recycling and new battery manufacturing. This is a huge missed opportunity,” the coalition told the Commission.
Consultancy McKinsey said in March this year that, given that over 5TWh/yr of gigafactory capacity is expected globally by 2030, over 100mn vehicle batteries are expected to be retired in the next decade.
“The end-product, when black mass is processed, is at best comparable to the same kind of end-products from virgin materials such as cobalt sulphate or lithium carbonate, and will be traded at the same prices as these chemicals with same grade. Thus, for a buyer, it does not matter if the material is coming from virgin sources or is recycled,” says Hans Eric Melin, managing director of consultancy Circular Energy Storage.
But for Electra’s North American project, while high amounts of key elements are being recovered from the black mass recycling, the refined materials are not yet battery-grade quality. This milestone, though, is the next step for the Electra at its Ontario plant, according to the firm’s CEO Trent Mell.
“As we accelerate our black mass recycling strategy, our focus has broadened to include upstream battery scrap shredding as well as upgrading our refined products to a battery-grade quality,” Mell says.
“With our decision to continue processing black mass material in our goal to expand processing capacity, we now plan to further enhance our process and target battery-grade quality products,” Electra’s Trevisiol adds.