Primobius advances technology for lithium-ion battery recycling

By IM Staff
Published: Thursday, 18 November 2021

A joint venture between Australia’s Neometals Ltd and Germany’s SMS group, Primobius has completed its demonstration plant in Germany and plans are advancing rapidly to proceed with commercial recycling in 2022, reports Richard Barrett.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have become an essential part of everyday life in mobile phones, laptops, cordless tools and many other items of consumer electronics. Now, with a transition away from fossil-fueled cars to electric vehicles the already large volume of their use is set to surge even more.

Since the number of lithium-ion cells needed for a single electric car is of course orders of magnitude greater than for a mobile phone, their growth in manufacture and use raises many questions about what happens to them at the end of their life.

These include who takes responsibility for them when they eventually wear out or the vehicle powered by them reaches the end of its life; what shape the infrastructure for collecting them should take; and which technologies can best be deployed to recycle them, taking into account that the main driving force behind the transition to EVs is the need to reduce carbon emissions and so every choice made needs to avoid reducing the benefits of electromobility by minimizing the carbon footprints associated with activities elsewhere in the automotive and recycling supply chain.

All these questions have been considered by Primobius, a 50:50 joint venture partnership formed last year between global supplier of metallurgical plant and technology, Germany’s SMS Group, and Neometals Ltd in Australia, a minerals and advanced materials project developer. The joint venture was formed after successful testing of the recycling process now at the heart of the business partnership during a pilot trial in Canada.

Their answers were given in the context of an update for the press at the end of September on the progress the joint venture has made over the past year, and to complement the news that work to build a demonstration plant in Germany is now complete, trials at that plant are now under way and plans are advancing rapidly to proceed with commercial recycling in 2022.

Demonstration plant

The demonstration plant is at Hilchenbach, built within the large and long-standing site of one of SMS group’s major workshops for the manufacture of metallurgical equipment.

Commissioning of the plant began in the third quarter of this year and is designed to show the efficacy of the Primobius process, with recycled products being evaluated with potential spent-battery or production scrap suppliers, product off-takers and partners.

The plant comprises a two-stage recycling system and provides customers the chance to see their batteries being recycled, observe the process, and to take away the end-products for evaluation with their supply-chain partners.

The Primobius recycling concept is said to present a scalable, flexible opportunity for expanding lithium-ion recycling, thus anticipating future increases in supply from end-of-life batteries and demand for the battery raw materials it recovers.

"Our goal, and that of our founding partner, is to provide fast, efficient, highly scalable recycling solutions for industry," Horst Krenn, joint managing director of Primobius said.

"As demand for electromobility and consumer electronics increases, there is also a growing need on the market for sustainable ways to recover the valuable raw materials used in batteries. And we can supply the technology and systems for this as well as the logistics and operational concepts."

"Companies don’t need a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather models that they can quickly expand to take advantage of all possible options in a dynamic market," he added.

"We provide this flexibility – coupled with the security offered by our experience in designing, building and maintaining complex plants all around the world," he explained.

Typical lithium-ion battery content (NCA, LCO chemistry)

Scale of the need

Christopher Reed, chief executive officer of Neometals, said that to understand Primobius it is important to be aware of the status quo and the areas in which the new company’s technology offers advantages over those used by existing lithium-ion battery recyclers.

"Lithium-ion batteries have shot to prominence quicker than solutions to manage them for production scrap and at the end of life. There is a clear need for a sustainable, scalable lithium-battery recycling process," he said, echoing Krenn.

"They are a mix of materials from all over the world… They are valuable and there is good economics in recycling them, but within the traditional supply chain they have extensive carbon footprints," he added.

He elaborated that while electric vehicles (EVs) are a good means to decarbonize transportation, the carbon footprints of the battery raw materials and cell manufacture also need to be taken into account.

While battery cell-makers are building out massive capacity to supply carmakers, Reed said there is a large volume of production scrap of 10-20% generated by that capacity, including off-specification cathodes and cells that have failed at the QA/QC stage.

"Those volumes need to be handled and need a solution now," he stressed.

Safe handling of combustible raw materials when storing and recycling lithium-ion batteries is a priority.

"So we have to have a process that can safely handle that," said Reed, noting that only a small percentage of lithium-ion batteries are currently being stockpiled for recycling, particularly in the West.

In the first stage, batteries for recycling are fed by conveyor belt into a commercial-scale shredder at the demonstration plant

While the level of recycling in China is higher, Reed described existing battery recycling methods as being more akin to traditional base metals refining, since the batteries are often incinerated in a pot or kiln, including the graphite anode, which is about 30% of the mass, the lithium-bearing electrolyte, which is combusted, together with plastic separators and casings, resulting in the recovery of only about 50% of the total battery mass.

Only some of the highest value elements of the batteries are recovered in that process, whereas the Primobius process tackles all their content aiming to recover in excess of 90% of the materials.

The prospects for growth in electromobility and battery cell production in Europe in particular are strong.

"With almost 200,000 newly approved battery-powered electric cars in the year 2020, Germany is the second most important market in the world," noted Primobius, adding that, by 2030, there are already plans to establish 22 factories for lithium-ion batteries in Europe with an output of over 700 GWh.

Over the same period, the raw material demand for key lithium battery ingredients is forecast to grow dramatically.

A robust process

"We have developed a process that is very robust," said Reed, explaining that the company started looking at consumer electronics batteries, from laptops and phones, recovering primarily lithium and cobalt oxide, but since then it has expanded that process with SMS group in a way that is much more complex, where the technology recovers nickel, manganese, cobalt, lithium and other physical products.

From a commercial recycling perspective, Primobius has also taken into account the evolution of battery chemistries.

"Even as they are thrifting out cobalt and we are moving from NMC111 to NMC622 to NMC811, we have very robust margins," Reed noted. "Our Class 4 Engineering Cost Study operating costs, at a +/-25% accuracy, is about €1,400/tonne (US$1,560 per tonne). So irrespective of the format or the cathode chemistries, we have a very economic process."

While any business has profitability as a top priority, he also emphasized the strategic value of Primobius technology to prospective clients.

"There is so much more in our process than just making money. For our customers, it is really about having the strategic value of being able to recover those critical materials that go into the batteries. Never before have the carmakers had to worry about the fuel in the car. Now that they are selling an electric car, they have to worry about the battery and the battery chemicals."

In addition to the environmental benefits of recycling, an efficient closed loop for lithium-ion battery recycling also addresses concerns about future materials supply chain security, particularly in regions where suitable virgin raw materials for battery production are scarce, as in Europe.

Reducing carbon footprint

Reed said that the total carbon dioxide emissions generated in manufacturing an EV are typically nearly double the carbon footprint of making a car installed with an internal combustion engine (ICE). He added that most of the additional carbon footprint for EV manufacture is associated with the materials used in the battery.

He also noted that as a consequence, it takes an electric car several years to catch up to CO2 parity with an ICE during the use phase, especially if it has been made from virgin, mined raw materials.

"If we can recover, recycle and refine the battery constituents, we can take that CO2 differential and we can reduce that," he explained.

Primobius noted that in the Hilchenbach demonstration plant the 8-tonne CO2 footprint from the use of virgin raw material can already be reduced to about 1.3 tonnes, and the company thinks they can take the carbon footprint generated by battery production down to about 300 kg per tonne of batteries, which would put EVs at parity with ICEs within the first year or so of the car’s operation.

"We can get to parity quicker and that will net reduce the carbon dioxide footprint of the global carmaking fleet," Reed summarized.

Future business models

Primobius identifies its potential customers as battery or battery cell manufacturers, the automotive industry, producers of consumer electronics, stationary energy storage companies and scrap recyclers.

"Producers of lithium-ion batteries are legally obliged to collect and recycle used lithium-ion batteries. To date however, collection targets have been missed and many of the batteries find their way to landfill or inefficient smelting-based recycling operations," the company stated.

Beyond the demonstration phase, Primobius is planning to use the plant at Hilchenbach commercially, particularly in trial campaigns for customers.

"As electromobility grows, so does the need for battery recycling, and Germany/Europe as a location must now establish extensive, efficient options," Krenn emphasized. "That’s why we not only developed a concept, built the system, and further developed the process, but we are also acting as owners and operators. This allows us to optimize the system right down to the very last detail and tailor it to meet our customers’ needs."

He said that in future cells returned under warranty will go back to car dealers and end-of-life cells will be returned to the dealers or certified waste collectors, where they will be aggregated as part of stewardship chains.

While the Primobius demonstration plant encompasses the entire recovery process, the technology’s two main parts can be set up separately from each other to provide a hub-and-spoke concept that the company says will further promote sustainability.

The first stage of shredding and sorting into plastic parts, metal parts and a black mass of mixed battery active materials can be done at the end of a spoke, at a customer’s own location for example. The second stage of hydrometallurgical recovery of materials from the black mass could be performed at a centrally located hub.

"The flexible hub-and-spoke system can reduce energy consumption for transport in the future and increase the safety of transporting and handling scrap and used lithium-ion batteries," said Primobius.

Future customers will be able to benefit from the technology’s modular construction as well as the business model, noted Hans Ferkel, chief technology officer of SMS group and member of the Primobius Advisory Boards.

"Primobius is consciously taking a flexible approach. Because our customers from industry, battery cell manufacturing, or recycling have very different needs. And we want to be prepared to meet these needs as a plant constructor and project developer or as an operator and partner," he said.

Reed also highlighted the company’s flexibility for different co-operation models, setting out four of them. For the first, as a principal recycler itself Primobius will take care of spent or scrap batteries to recycle them in a sustainable manner for a fee and would find its own markets for the products, which he noted is the model of incumbent recyclers.

Under a service agreement model, the company would finance and operate plants to provide a recycling service, with Primobius either co-locating a shredder at a client’s site, such as a cell-maker generating production scrap, or the client themselves investing in an additional shredder to create the black mass.

In a joint venture partnership model, the company would share the economic benefits of processing off-specification and end-of-life batteries. For very large contracts, under a licensing model, Primobius could offer a technology license and provide the equipment.

"We want to get into the supply chain… We want to aggressively target volume," said Reed.

Elaborating on the hub-and-spoke model, he said that ideally the shredders would run on the customer’s production sites, operated either by the customer themselves or Primobius, while the hydromet hubs would be built at strategic locations as close as possible to the users of their products. Carmakers will want the recycled battery materials back, he stressed.

He estimated that the total addressable market in Europe in 2025 will be about 335,000 tonnes per year of batteries: "The total installed capacity of all lithium battery recyclers in Europe now is about 50,000 tpy."

Primobius is consequently already looking at building a 20,000 tpy plant, which could take the production scrap from cell makers’ lithium battery manufacturing.

"And we are studying a 200,000 tpy plant to take the end-of-life arisings after 8-10 years or even earlier if there are recalls," he added.

At the end of the first quarter of 2022, Primobius plans to make an investment decision on a Primobius 50-tpd plant of its own in Germany, with one of two possible sites in mind.

The company already has a memorandum of understanding with Canada’s Stelco, a special, high-quality steelmaker which supplies North American automakers. It is considering a 50:50 joint venture to develop a hub-and-spoke model.

Another memorandum of understanding, with Itochu in Japan, which supplies battery materials and makes stationary energy storage batteries, is also considering a 509-tpd joint venture plant.

Reed concluded with a timeline that sees completion of Primobius’ feasibility study for its own 50-tpd plant in Germany in March next year, with potential commercial-scale operations commencing about a year after that.

The second stage uses leaching with sulphuric acid, purification and precipitation to produce refined chemical products via a hydrometallurgical process facility

A sustainable hydrometallurgical recycling solution

Primobius CEO Horst Krenn described the battery recycling process the company has developed, which comprises two main stages. Both of them are in operation at the company’s demonstration plant in Hilchenbach, but the two stages can be located at different sites, depending on the choice of business model and logistics chosen by commercial users.

Krenn said the company has combined engineering and production under one roof at Hilchenbach, where they currently have a dedicated 2,000 sq meter facility for Primobius, with scope to expand there if required. An R&D license currently permits processing of 1 tonne of batteries per day at the plant, but Primobius is looking to increase that to 10 tpd from the first quarter of next year.

Used batteries from consumer electronics, battery production scrap, or battery cells removed from used EV battery packs, for recycling are fed by conveyor belt into a commercial-scale shredder. For safety, wet shredding occurs under a nitrogen atmosphere to manage any possible fire risk. The resulting mixed materials are automatically separated, including solid metals from the casings, copper or aluminium electrode foils, and plastics. Those solid materials are collected in bags for sale to conventional metals and plastic recyclers.

The rest of the battery contents are separated as a mixed, wet black mass, which is held in a collection tank and transferred into drums. The process accepts multiple battery chemistries, formats and types, as well as accepting batteries that are not fully discharged.

The second stage uses leaching with sulphuric acid, purification and precipitation to produce refined chemical products via a hydrometallurgical process facility. That hydromet stage creates high-value products, metal sulfate intermediates (cathode materials, nickel, cobalt and manganese) as well as lithium and graphite.

Krenn explained the steps in the second stage: "The black mass is fed into the leach circuit and dissolves the battery cathode active materials. The leach solution is separated from the carbon solid residue stepwise through solvent extraction. From the leach solution, copper and nickel are recovered as a high-purity copper sulfate and nickel sulfate, and lithium is also recovered as a sulfate, which will allow conversion to lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate in a next step. Manganese and copper sulfate are saleable to existing refineries or for direct industrial use."

The solid leach residue contains graphite. "This we dry, drum and send away for re-use," said Krenn.

Ammonia is used for impurity removal (Al-Fe-hydroxide) from the black mass before the successive separate extraction steps to recover copper, cobalt, manganese, nickel and lithium.

"In our multi-stage process the final product is a liquid ammonium sulfate, which is saleable to the fertilizer market," Krenn added.

Looking at the process as a whole, Krenn explained that Primobius will replace materials usually supplied by primary refiners by  generating the finished cathode intermediates that cell-makers use for their cathode manufacturing process.

He pointed out that Primobius will effectively operate as a refiner and compared the company’s output with a mining operation. A mid-sized EV battery supplies a basket of already highly purified material as a feed to the refinery, with copper representing up to about 15.7% per tonne of battery feed, nickel 14.9%, lithium 2.4% and cobalt 1.9%.

A commercial-scale processing plant handling 50 tonnes of batteries per day, which Primobius is studying for future operation in Germany, would generate a suite of low-value products like plastic or the metal casing, plus about 10,000 tonnes per year of nickel sulfate, 3,340 tpy tonnes of lithium sulfate, 1,370 tpy of cobalt sulfate and 1,860 tpy of copper foil.

"We have national phase patents awaiting grant and remain very confident regarding our freedom to operate and we have the capability to replicate, scale up and construct almost everywhere globally by ourselves. We already know it works and we are achieving excellent results from our test program currently," said Krenn.

The first and second stages of the full recycling process have been built at the demonstration plant, but they can be separated at different locations according to customer needs