In a large, nondescript warehouse in Kingston, Ont., a new business is underway: Lithium-ion battery recycling. And it could be an important part of Canada’s net future.
Owned by Canadian startup Li-Cycle, the facility has stacks of drained lithium-ion batteries that not long ago would have been destined for a landfill. The company gives them a new life – recycling the batteries of most electric vehicles, phones and laptops.
“It’s kind of like urban mining,” said Li-Cycle CEO Ajay Kochar. “Essentially, we can make sure that whatever we take out of the ground and put into the batteries, we get an equal amount back.”
Automotive research company JD Power estimates the battery life of electric vehicles to be ten to twenty years – so Electric vehicles have now been in use in Canada for so long that some of the batteries need to be replaced at the end of the decade.
Finding ways to recycle those expensive, toxic batteries could address the environmental issues that come with building electric vehicles in the first place.
applying for “black mass”.
Li-Cycle shreds used batteries and separates the materials using a water-based technique known as hydrometallurgical processing.
It sifts metals and plastics for recycling, leaving the main by-product – a dirty substance known as black pulp. Black mass consists of lithium, cobalt and nickel; critical minerals that are the building blocks of electric car batteries.
Starting in 2023, Li-Cycle will send the black pulp to a new facility it is building in Rochester, NY, where it can separate the black pulp into valuable battery-grade materials used to make new EV batteries. Li-Cycle says the plant will be the first source of recycled battery-grade lithium carbonate production in North America.
Kochar said his company can recover 95 percent of the critical minerals needed to make batteries for new electric vehicles, a process that can happen repeatedly.
“There is no limit to how many times the same lithium, nickel and cobalt can be recycled,” he said.
The role of critical minerals
The role of critical minerals in the manufacture of electric car batteries has recently come under the microscope. They are mined in only a few countries, and demand has grown amid tight supply, causing prices to rise.
Canada and the United States have each implemented plans this year to secure domestic supply chains for critical minerals to boost mining and recycling of materials like lithium.
In early December, Ottawa unveiled a strategy that would allow critical mineral projects to be approved more quickly.
At the time, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said without critical minerals “there will be no transition to green energy”.
According to a report published by the International Clean Transportation Council in 2020, recycling old electric car batteries can reduce the need for new mining operations by 20 percent by 2040.
“We need the material first, so it has to happen as cleanly as possible,” Kochar said. “But when we have [critical minerals]we need to keep it in a circular loop and we don’t need to go back and get more impact in terms of mining.”
Battery waste is a global problem
Li-Cycle is not the only battery recycler in the country. Other Canadian players include Lithion Recycling and Retriev Technologies, all of which are on the rise as Canada moves to mandate the sale of electric cars.
The federal government is proposing legislation that would require 20 percent of all passenger cars sold in the country to be electric starting in 2026 and increase that to 60 percent of all sales by 2030.
Josipa Petrunic, executive director and CEO of the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, says waste from discharged lithium-ion batteries is currently a problem and is already accumulating worldwide.
“The reality is battery waste is pretty much the nuclear waste problem of my generation,” he said. “So we have to figure it out whether we like it or not.”
Incentives must be linked to recycling programs
While Canada has not pledged federal funding for EV battery recycling, the United States is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on recycling projects. The US Senate also passed a bill to increase recycling of electric vehicle batteries, which could soon be signed into law.
Petrunic says Ottawa needs to enact policies that combine incentives to buy and manufacture electric cars with recycling.
“The government can catch recycling really fast by tying all the money, billions of dollars, to recycling plans so that cities and consumers can’t buy cars or buses that don’t have a recycling plan attached.”
Paul Rapoport was an early adopter of electrics and bought a Tesla Model S in 2014 to reduce vehicle emissions.
Back then, there was little information about the recycling of electric car batteries. He believes that recycling options will encourage more consumers to use electric cars because they will be more aware of where the batteries end up.
“It’s very important to know that these batteries won’t end up in a landfill forever.”
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