Mining and recycling strategic battery metals

By IM Staff
Published: Tuesday, 17 November 2020

As part of a strategy to diversify its activities, the Germany-based international plant builder and engineering business SMS group is applying its technological expertise to processing ores and the means to recycle lithium batteries. Chief technology officer Hans Ferkel and senior vice president for strategic project development Herbert Weissenbaeck discuss the group’s plans and progress with Richard Barrett

Of all the battery metals to have emerged as a key component of the energy storage vital for modern-day life, lithium is probably the best known in the public mind in view of its widespread use in rechargeable phones, power tools, electric vehicles (EVs) and a wide range of other applications.

While global production of lithium has grown to meet climbing demand in recent years, the issues of exactly where the metal is mined and processed for batteries internationally – and how it can be recycled when batteries reach the end of their life – have become strategic. Owing to large-scale development plans in the EV industry, there are also questions about whether lithium production will be sufficient to meet future demand within the next four to seven years. 

Such considerations have encouraged development of minerals processing and lithium battery-grade chemicals production at the Cinovec project in the Czech Republic. Towards the end of September, SMS group announced that it had been appointed by Geomet, a joint venture between Australian mineral exploration and development company European Metals and Czech energy giant CEZ, as the lead engineer for the project. The Germany-based international plantmaker will supply front-end engineering design (FEED) for what it says will be Europe’s first lithium battery chemicals facility.

The new facility is set to produce about 22,500 tons of lithium carbonate or about 25,000 tons of lithium hydroxide per year (both of battery grade), as well as tin and tungsten concentrates from a by-products recovery circuit. SMS group will provide the process and plant technology for the complete process chain: from ore comminution, via logistics for concentrate handling, up to and including the extractive metallurgy processes (see graphic of plant layout).

Under the FEED agreement, SMS group will provide full process integration, from the point of delivery of ore to the underground crusher, through to the delivery of finished battery-grade lithium chemicals for battery and cathode manufacturers. This encompasses comminution, beneficiation, roasting, leaching and purification as well as the lithium process flowsheet and the tin/tungsten recovery circuit delivering metal concentrates to refineries. 

The aim of the FEED is to deliver a binding fixed-price lump-sum turnkey Engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contract with associated process guarantee and product specification guarantees for battery-grade lithium chemicals.

Plant design for battery-grade lithium chemicals production

Predicting the need

"In the last few years, we have gained a strong position within the fast-growing segment of technological metals, including those for battery production," said Herbert Weissenbaeck, SMS group vice president for strategic project development, at the time of signing the contract. 

SMS group notes that there is good reason to believe there will be increasing lithium project activity within Europe. "Given the situation that in Europe lithium ion battery production capacities equating to about 200 GWh per year are being planned or are currently under construction, and the fact that about 800 t of lithium carbonate are needed to produce one gigawatt hour of battery capacity, the production volume planned by Geomet in the first phase of the project will only cover a small portion of the medium-term demand generated in Europe," it highlighted in a press release.

The company believes that the FEED contract appointment, at what it says is Europe’s largest hard-rock lithium resource, will put the company at the forefront of this developing industry. SMS group also stated: "Especially, as we see that off-the-shelf metallurgical processes are becoming increasingly inadequate for the extraction of valuable metals from non-conventional ores at reasonable costs and with a minimum ecological footprint, we can count on our broad-based portfolio of technologies and our extensive know-how in both pyro and hydrometallurgy, offering our customers in the technological metals sector optimized, integrated solutions." 

Weissenbaeck explained further. "Around 15 years ago we started looking at the potential for growth in metallurgical plants and our volume of business and we figured out even back then that it was becoming obvious that growth in steel metallurgical plants would be slower than for new technology metals that go into products for an electrified future – like lithium, vanadium, nickel and cobalt," he told Metal Market Magazine. 

"Of course we supply blast furnaces and casters and rolling mills and other metals-making and forming equipment, but we have also always had a strong portfolio of processing lines, which involve quite a lot of sophisticated chemistry," he added. "Descaling of carbon steel and stainless steels requires the recovery of acids and the various caustics involved. In the chemistry department, we realised that metals like lithium would develop strong economic demand and that we had quite a lot of processing steps suitable for their extraction from complex ores in our toolbox."

He said that, performed in the right sequence, some of those processing steps are very suitable for implementing production routes for lithium carbonate, lithium hydroxide, vanadium pentoxide and vanadium electrolytes.

SMS group opened its hydrometallurgical laboratory in Vienna in 2008. "We started out small just with metallurgical test work, mainly to complement process developments around our main lines of business, but now we are increasingly dealing with numerous non-conventional sources of battery and technology materials as the easy to mine and to process ores, such as for example nickel sulfates, are running out and that more complex sources, that require bespoke, environmentally friendly and energy-efficient processing solutions, such as – to stay with the same example – nickel laterites are receiving increasing attention."

He reminded that conventional sources of nickel are the nickel sulfates found in the northern hemisphere, such as the major deposits of Norilsk, or at Sudbury, in Canada. "Nickel sulfate processing more often than not entails a significant sulfur dioxide footprint, and so permitting [for processing] in the Western world is quite a challenge," he added. 

He pointed to plentiful resources of laterites in the tropics as the likely main future sources of nickel, but added that the incumbent processing methods for those ores are rather capex and opex intensive. "So the industry was spending quite a lot of money on researching new routes for that and this was one of the entry points for us as a hydrometallurgical laboratory for test and development work on new hydrometallurgical routes for the extraction of nickel and cobalt concentrates from those sources," Weissenbaeck explained.

Over time those activities increased. SMS group signed a contract two years ago with Altech Chemicals, which produces high-purity alumina, driven by the battery industry, which is in high demand as a coating material for the separator foils in lithium-ion batteries. Weissenbaeck noted that an alumina coating is applied to those separator foils as a precaution against battery fires as well as to inhibit battery charging-depth degradation. "There is an increasing demand for that and, together with Altech, we did a FEED study for an integrated HPA plant and – based on that – we signed a turnkey fixed-price EPC contract for US$280 million to be executed on their site in Johor Bahru, Malaysia," he highlighted. 

"Now the 'lithium train’ is leaving the station and accelerating, and here in Europe especially," said Weissenbaeck. "The European governments have a tendency towards becoming autonomous when it comes to the supply of battery materials," he added.

He is consequently confident that the FEED deal with Geomet in the CEZ / European Metals joint venture will not be the last one.

 "There are other countries that want to have their own lithium battery chemicals facilities to fuel the growing number of battery-gigafactories. We are participating in this trend and are anticipating having the edge over others, especially here in Europe," he said, adding that, as a supplier that has invested in getting its toolbox and processing steps lined up in order to master the underlying processing challenges, SMS group sees itself as very well positioned.

SMS group chief technology officer Hans Ferkel

Compact timeframe
There are 14 months to complete the FEED project for the Cinovec project, but then what will the timeframe be to start building the commercial plant to process ore from that mine if all goes to plan? 

"In projects of this nature, the length of the local permitting processes is more often than not becoming the main determinant for the project timeline," said Weissenbaeck. "Apart from that, the execution time for this particular project, depending on the chosen execution strategy and structure, is not expected to differ much from what one would expect for a greenfield medium-size processing plant complex in a location with substantial existing industrial infrastructure, such as the infrastructure at Cinovec."

How will SMS group organize its project team from across the diverse range of engineers and technologists in the company? "We will put together all the people who are willing and able to work on this project – that is very important," said chief technology officer Hans Ferkel. "Because sometimes if you want to have a big change in a company, you need people who are willing to change and interested in it.

If you ask, then you will find people in the company who are willing and you can educate people, who may not be the absolute experts on something but, if they are willing to do it, they can learn it quickly, building not only on the distinct DNA of an engineering company with a strong track record in disruptive innovation, but also on the substantial groundwork already completed by European Metals over the last 5 years," he stressed. The FEED project team is expected to exceed 100 people.

Alpha and omega
In addition to expanding its in-house expertise in ore processing technology, the company is also investing in technologies for the other end of the battery supply chain, having recently acquired a stake in lithium-ion battery recycler Primobius GmbH.

"We talk a lot about the ingredients you need to make batteries to drag out of the earth to the manufacturers of these kinds of batteries, but still then you have to close the loop," said Ferkel. "That is the reason that we have formed this 50:50 joint venture with Neometals called Primobius," he explained.

The Primobius recycling process targets the recovery of valuable materials from consumer electronic batteries, including devices with lithium cobalt oxide cathodes and nickel-rich electric vehicle and stationary storage battery chemistries (with lithium‐nickel-manganese‐cobalt cathodes). Primobius notes that its technology supports multiple chemistries and formats, sometimes without prior discharging of the batteries. A wet shredding process is used to reduce the risk of fire hazard and a combined off-gas system with filtering and wet scrubbing is used to remove volatile organic compounds and dust.

"We are trying to use a hydrometallurgical approach to recycle all the most important ingredients out of these materials. We first shred the batteries and then we have finally the black mass, containing the most valuable elements – for example cobalt, manganese, carbon and lithium – and this needs to be recycled at a very high level of perhaps 90% or more because this is very efficient and then we can close the loop," Ferkel added. 

Having undertaken laboratory-scale testing, the company is now building a 1,000 tpy pilot plant in Germany at the site of the group’s foundation and major engineering workshops in Hilchenbach, which will start operation next year. It will take, "all batteries coming out of the field, or ones that have been rejected during manufacture because of some quality problems, which also have to be recycled," said Ferkel. Its output will be the ingredients needed to make new batteries.

If the technology scales up successfully, Ferkel said that a commercial-scale recycling plant with a capacity of 20,000 tpy of battery input or more is envisaged. "In the intermediate step we can really test all these things," he added.

According to Primobius, it is likely that over 15 million tonnes of lithium-ion batteries could be discarded globally from 2020-30, so the need for technologies to recycle them is ever more pressing and in an increasing number of nations recycling is mandatory.

Herbert Weissenbaeck

Funding the future
For speed in a competitive arena, the battery recycling project partners have found the money to fund the pilot project from their own resources. "For the battery recycling, we are doing everything on our own, to be quick and keep the key know-how in the company and own the intellectual property needed ultimately to earn money," Ferkel explained.

Later on, for a commercial-scale plant, decisions will be made on when and whether to involve partners to source funding for larger scale projects.

The timeframe for the Primobius pilot is set. "We will start next year. We want to test all the batteries and get the products out of it and then deliver those to potential customers for these types of chemicals in order to make new batteries. So we want to have this done next year," Ferkel concluded.

Slovakian battery manufacturer InoBat Auto

Slovakian battery manufacturer InoBat Auto offers the latest developments in lithium-ion battery cells to a range of markets and applications. The company recently entered into a memorandum of understanding with Primobius that provides an evaluation framework towards a potential Primobius-Inobat cooperation to operate a commercial lithium-ion battery recycling facility in Eastern Europe. InoBat is building a 'gigafactory’ and it is anticipated that the company will produce 50,000 tons per year of new batteries after its full commercial start (expected in 2024).

Reinventing SMS group

While SMS group has a long-established range of plant and technologies, including meltshops, steel and non-ferrous rolling mills, processing lines, and forging and extrusion equipment for international markets that it continues to serve, it is also consciously diversifying its activities to supply rapidly emerging markets, such as the battery metals projects described in the main article, plus scandium, niobium, silicon and various rare earths. 

Demand for metals that have historically been more or less the captive by-products of the production of other metals – sometimes used as the definition of a minor metal – has catalysed the development of processes and technologies to enable their production from unconventional sources or via advanced recycling schemes, and sometimes both.

It is the potential growth in demand for equipment needed for those new markets that has stimulated SMS group’s diversification and a degree of reinvention. While the smelting, rolling and finishing of industrial metals like steel and aluminium remain core parts of the company’s portfolio, pyrohydrolysis, hydrolytic distillation, oxidative precipitation and fluidised bed technology, together with other techniques of extractive metallurgy, have become an extended part of the company’s range in recent years.

In addition to the example of the project with Altech on high-purity alumina (see main article), Australian mining corporation TNG Limited, based in Perth, Australia, and SMS group plan to implement a process enabling the production of CO2-neutral hydrogen as the Mount Peake titanium/vanadium/iron project is developed in the Northern Territory of Australia. The hydrogen produced will be used as a reducing agent to make the production of titanium, vanadium and iron from fine-grained titanomagnetite concentrate carbon-neutral.

Under the umbrella of its New Horizons programme, many other projects are under way that are also not connected directly with the group’s traditional core business.

Additive manufacturing
"For example, powder metallurgy [and 3D printing] are not in our core business yet," said Ferkel, but the company has already made significant in-roads into that area. "We sold a metal-powder atomization plant to Outokumpu as equipment as a service and we are also looking to our own plants that we are selling to see where we can use 3D printed parts," he added.

The atomization plant for Outokumpu – scheduled to become operational in early 2022 – will be designed for an annual production of up to 330 tons of stainless steel powder. It is also a first for SMS group in being the first ever facility that the company is supplying under a subscription contract.

One of the established advantages of additive manufacturing is its ability to make parts that can be designed on a computer with advanced design software, but which are impossible to actually make by using conventional machining techniques. "Some things are not possible if you try to produce it by conventional drilling or cutting, so you have to produce it by a flow model or similar," Ferkel elaborated. "It can be nice looking, but then no-one can produce it. With 3D printing, you can produce such parts and that is also something we can use in our plant at different sites," he added.

A manufacturer of high-alloy forgings, Gustav Grimm Edelstahlwerk GmbH & CO. KG, based in Remscheid, Germany, started running a 31.5/34-MN high-speed open-die forging press supplied by SMS group earlier this year (see photo). For the first time, the plantmaker installed an additively manufactured machine component in an open-die forging press. Made from aluminium alloy, the 3D-printed hydraulic manifold block is much lighter and more compact than one conventionally made from steel, and has a flow-optimized design.

Changing mindset
Introducing such new technologies and concepts into SMS group – a company with a mechanical engineering heritage stretching back well over a century – can raise challenges.

"That is another reason why you need an interdisciplinary team because sometimes, also, you need someone to sign for it that this component will work and then you must be sure," said Ferkel. "If you confront someone with perhaps 30 years on normal technology of manufacturing things, then to change this guy to be able to think in a 3D-printed manner – that needs some time. So you always need this mix of young, open-minded people that challenge the more experienced people and finally something useful comes out," he explained.

Ferkel described the site of one of SMS group’s major workshops, at Hilchenbach in Germany, where the 1,000 tpy pilot lithium-ion battery recycling plant described in the main article is being built, as the "cradle of the SMS group." He said that it also shows how the SMS group is able to reinvent itself again and is also able to change: "It is not just a physical change but a mindset change," he concluded.

High-speed open-die forging press