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