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Interview: Ajay Kochhar, President and CEO, Li-Cycle Corp

The President and CEO of Li-Cycle Corp gives us a sneak preview into what he'll discuss at the 10th Lithium Supply & Markets Conference

You can hear more from Ajay Kochhar and lithium-ion battery recycling at the 10th Lithium Supply & Markets Conference in June in Las Vegas.

Industrial Minerals (IM): Hi Ajay, thanks for agreeing to take part in this interview. Please introduce yourself and can you explain a little more about Li-Cycle Corp?

Ajay Kochhar (AK): Thank you for having me. I am one of the co-founders and the CEO of Li-Cycle, a closed loop lithium-ion battery recycler. My co-founder and the Chairman of Li-Cycle, Tim Johnston, and I formerly worked at Hatch – a global engineering consultancy – with a focus on the lithium and energy metals industries. At Hatch, Tim and I had the opportunity to work on projects across the lithium-ion battery value chain, from engineering studies, to construction and commissioning.

Li-Cycle is on a mission to leverage our innovative solution to address an emerging and urgent global challenge. The world needs improved technology and supply chain innovations to better recycle lithium-ion batteries, and to meet the rapidly growing demand for critical battery-grade materials. Li-Cycle Technology™ is a low cost, safe, environmentally friendly process that can recycle all types of lithium-ion batteries. It can do so with an unparalleled recovery rate of up to 100% of all materials, including lithium.  Li-Cycle’s industry-leading innovations make it uniquely positioned to support a key element of the growing international movement towards zero carbon technologies.

IM: What are some of the most prominent opportunities for lithium-ion battery recyclers?

AK: The most prominent opportunities for lithium-ion battery recyclers include expansion into recycling batteries from electric vehicles (xEVs) and energy storage systems (ESS), forward integration (i.e. to produce active materials), and backwards integration (i.e. the reuse of lithium-ion batteries).

The proliferation of lithium-ion batteries into emerging high voltage formats (i.e. xEVs and ESS) present an immense opportunity for lithium-ion battery recyclers. Of course, however, there is a delay between when high voltage batteries are being placed on the market and when they are expected to return for recycling. In the interim, there is an opportunity for lithium-ion battery recyclers to continue to service the significant and existing base of lithium-ion batteries used across many applications – from consumer electronics to household appliances. Li-Cycle, for example, is focused across all applications of lithium-ion batteries, from electric vehicles, to grid-scale energy storage and consumer electronics.

There are also opportunities for lithium-ion battery recyclers to integrate forwards and backwards along the supply chain. Most existing recyclers currently produce end-products that are precursors for production of active lithium-ion battery materials (e.g. cobalt, nickel and copper). However, there are increasing opportunities to integrate forwards to produce higher value active materials, such as cathodes. Alongside, as high voltage lithium-ion batteries are increasingly returning for recycling, there are multiple end-of-lifecycle pathways that battery packs may take. In some instances, there are opportunities for the ‘4Rs’ to occur before recycling – that is, repair, remanufacturing, refurbishing and/or repurposing. Lithium-ion battery recyclers increasingly have an opportunity to integrate backwards to include 4R services. This opportunity is driven by the step change in complexity and size of high voltage battery packs relative to historically small/portable lithium-ion batteries in consumer electronics, for example.

IM: What are some concerns for lithium-ion battery recyclers?

AK: Safety and economics are two concerns for lithium-ion battery recyclers.

From exploding train cars to materials recovery facility (MRF) fires, it is becoming increasingly evident that there needs to be better awareness, controls, and behaviours to address the safety risks associated with lithium-ion batteries, particularly as it relates to end-of-lifecycle supply chains. Thermal runaway, which is a term for an uncontrollable exothermic reaction that emits large amounts of heat, can occur in lithium-ion batteries when damaged or short circuited. Disasters from thermal runaway can be devastating, even when caused by portable/small format lithium-ion batteries. Although it is important to be aware of safety risks, technology cannot be assessed in a vacuum nor should incidents be over sensationalized. For example, lithium-ion batteries have a much lower energy release potential compared to gasoline, the fossil fuel that powers most of the internal combustion engines that power many modes of transport in society today. At an industrial level, manufacturers, recyclers, and other key entities involved in the lithium-ion battery supply chain must continue to mitigate the likelihood of lithium-ion battery thermal runaway by complying to and exceeding all applicable standards and regulations. Simultaneously, robust safety controls and behaviours must be implemented.

Given the historically wide-ranging and continued variability of chemistries and form factors of lithium-ion batteries, the family of ‘lithium-ion’ batteries relate to a diverse set of recycling economics. Depending on the constituents and recycling technology, the inherent material value in lithium-ion batteries may or may not cover the cost of recycling. For example, high cobalt lithium-ion batteries are often ‘value-positive’ materials, meaning recyclers typically pay to acquire the batteries they recycle due to the value of the metals (specifically cobalt) within the battery. However, for other chemistries that include minimal amounts or no cobalt and other valuable materials, batteries could be ‘value-negative’ meaning the entities controlling the batteries must typically pay recyclers to have them processed. Improved resource recovery/recycling technology with increased efficiencies can enable robust economics across the broad gamut of lithium-ion batteries, as Li-Cycle has developed. Alongside, a critical mass of lithium-ion batteries is required to enable economics for recyclers. Designing for recycling is also important as part of manufacturing. For example, when assessing battery chemistries relative to one another, accounting for the complete life cycle cost of lithium-ion batteries (including recycling) is important for manufacturers and the full value chain.

IM: Do you think that secondary lithium will be a solution to the shortages in the value chain?

AK: Secondary lithium will certainly play an important role in meeting shortages in the value chain in the medium to long term. In 2025, the estimated base case supply of lithium carbonate equivalent from recycling is forecasted to be 30,000 tonnes, per Circular Energy Storage Research and Consulting and Li-Cycle estimates. Depending on demand forecasts, this could be approximately and at least 10 percent of total global demand for lithium carbonate in 2025. Secondary supply of critical materials such as lithium carbonate through lithium-ion battery recycling will play an important role in minimizing supply chain bottlenecks and price swings into the future.

This content is provided by Industrial Mineral Events for informational purposes only, and it reflects the market and industry conditions and presenter’s opinions and affiliations available at the time of the presentation.