Recycling Recycling: the great lithium challenge
The first words of the title of this article are intended to be read, respectively, as an adjective and a noun.
I want to address the topic of recycling with the focus of the discussion to encompass the conservation of the rare technology metals.
Ironically the main driver for the extensive and — in the cases of iron, copper (the key technology metal) and lead — comprehensive recycling of base metals in the U.S. and other mature developed industrial economies is to take advantage of, and therefore conserve, the energy that was already expended to mine, refine, and fabricate them into end-user forms. In fact, if it were not for the recycling infrastructure now present in the U.S., we would be forced by today’s energy economics alone to buy all of our base metals from lower cost primary suppliers (miners and smelters). In that case we would be, or soon would be, importing 100% of all of our needs for base metals due to the costs of the energy necessary in the primary development and production of base metals’ production alone.
The above is true also, and perhaps even more so, of the technology metals that are mostly produced as byproducts and/or companion metals of the base metals.
The one, and only, time that companion technology metals can be produced at lowest cost from their associated base metals is the first time that those base metals are themselves produced from ores.
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There is of course (always) an exception. In this case it is for the industrially useful portion of the so-called precious metals, platinum, palladium, rhodium and, to a lesser extent, gold. These industrially used “precious metals” are recovered in the recycling of end-of-life and industrial manufacturing scraps of iron, copper, and lead precisely because they are used in conjunction with base metals in which they occur naturally and are therefore soluble in melts of those base metals.
But, in general, the industrially used technology metals are not recovered in the recycling of base metals. Thus whenever the new (primary) production of base metals slows or stops, the supply of technology metals in particular is not only reduced but eliminated. It is thus critically important in discussing the maintenance of the flow of technology metals to address their recycling.
There are some few technology metals besides the precious metals that are recovered from primary sources (ores in which they are the only valuable metal contained). The most prominent of these today is lithium, and it is the recycling of lithium, therefore, that I will first discuss.
Until the advent of the mass-produced lithium-ion battery, the principal use of lithium was for heat resistant ceramics. The most important source of lithium for this purpose was the hard rock mineral spodumene and, due to the fact that iron discolors ceramics and glass, the spodumene of choice was iron-free or low iron. The world’s largest producer of ceramic grade spodumene was and is the Australian company known as Talison. It is not a coincidence that, after Corning sold its Pyrex trademark and production technology to a Chinese company, China became the world’s largest importer of iron-free spodumene. It is also not a coincidence that now that China’s State Council — its ruling body — decreed that 5,000,000 lithium-ion battery-powered vehicles would be produced by 2020 and every year thereafter, that China’s lithium conglomerate has purchased control of Talison.
The first contract I ever worked on for my first employer in 1962 was from an entity then, known as Lithium Corporation of America , which mined spodumene in North Carolina. Forty five years later I found myself representing SQM (Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile), a wholly owned Chilean subsidiary of POS, Canada’s fertilizer giant, which was probing the US OEM (original equipment manufacturer) automotive industry as a potential large customer (for its suppliers) for lithium produced from brines for use in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles. That first contract I worked upon was to find and develop novel uses of lithium for the generation, modulation and storage of electricity and for use in sensors of heat and light. We made a molten salt type of lithium-ion battery in 1963 but Ford Scientific’s work on sodium sulfur batteries was much further along and better underwritten. I am telling you this to point out that the endless announcements of “breakthroughs” by laboratories in the development of some aspect of lithium-ion battery chemistry have a long history, and it takes many, many years before any of them, if any of them, advance to mass production.
Notwithstanding that statement, it has now been 36 years since Panasonic, or Sony, commercialized the rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Automobile manufacturers are about to dramatically increase the numbers of EV models available. Beginning with the Chevrolet Bolt this Fall, and including mid-range and high end models from most of the world’s legacy (internal combustion) car and truck makers, as well as from a range of relatively new exclusively EV makers there may be by 2020 a global capacity (mainly in China) to produce 5,000,000 EVs annually (out of the 100,000,000-plus motor vehicles to be produced that year).
I say “may” because there are fundamental issues of raw material supply, refining capacity, and fabrication capacity and skill that could limit the actual volume of lithium-ion battery cells of any currently (or soon to be) mass produced type.
Lithium, of course, is necessary in a lithium-ion battery and, at this point in time, so is cobalt. Little, if any, of either of these materials is newly produced (from ores or brines) in volume commercially in the U.S. today. My colleague has brought the cobalt supply issue to the forefront of the critical natural resources discussion. But in my next article I will discuss the pro’s (security of supply) and con’s (basic economics) of the recycling of cobalt for “batteries.” Cobalt is widely recovered today from the scraps created by its uses in tool steels.
Lithium for recycling can come only from manufacturing and end-of-life battery scraps. The Japanese and Tesla recognized this a decade ago, although not entirely for economic or security of supply reasons. To those two drivers both Tesla and Toyota added the savings engendered from cradle-to-grave management of materials perceived by government (regulators) to be substantial safety issues.
At the same time that Toyota and Tesla were recognizing this driver it was being studiously ignored by SQM, the world’s largest producer of lithium from brines. In 2007 I arranged for a presentation by SQM’s marketing manager and his team to the Battery Development Manager and his team at General Motors. GM Purchasing was also present. The topic that ended the discussion prematurely was the disposal of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries. GM wanted SQM to take such “scrap” to Chile for “recycling.” The Chileans said that it was cheaper to produce new lithium than to recycle it from scrap batteries. At that point I drew the SQM marketing manager aside and informed him that the U.S. government required “cradle-to-grave management” of hazardous materials used in manufacturing and that GM was really suggesting that the scrap batteries be taken to the “mine” and interred there. The SQM manager was adamant that SQM would not accept or otherwise handle any “scrap.” The discussions and my relationship with SQM ended there and then.
I recite this story in order to refute the charge that I do not understand that lithium recycling from batteries is not economical. What people who say that mean is that from their limited perspective the lithium recovered from recycling must be a sold at a loss compared with the lithium from new production. This is only true if the extra revenue from legally, ethically, and efficiently managing the environmental issues associated with lithium-ion battery use life is ignored.
About 10 years ago the U.S. Department of Defense decided to “scrap” a large number of big lithium-ion batteries it had installed at missile silos as back up if the grid and/or fossil fueled generators above ground were taken out by enemy action. The DoD found, however, that such batteries could not be recycled in the ordinary course of events due to the very reason they were being retired: that is, the propensity to catch fire or even explode when subjected to high velocity penetration They were certainly not bulletproof, in other words.
Eventually a $10 million matching grant was issued to a private California (scrap dealer) contractor who ultimately built a recycling facility to safely dismantle the batteries and neutralize or disassemble their components so they could be safely transported for further processing to recover their valuable metals. This same contractor then proceeded to get a similar contract with Toyota and then Tesla, which expanded his capabilities to include the same services for nickel metal hydride (so called “rare earth”) batteries widely used in the Toyota Prius and other hybrids.
I visited one of this contractor’s facilities in California late last year, and it was indeed impressive.
As far as I know the only other facilities of this type are also owned by this private California contractor and are in the U.S. and Canada.
There is overcapacity today globally in Cobalt refining as well as in rare earth refining, so the destination for the cobalt-rich anodes from lithium-ion batteries of the appropriate type is competitive. Lithium processing facilities downstream are not in such excess but they are available, and so I expect the cobalt recycler drives the destination of its lithium-rich residues.
To the best of my knowledge there is today only a very limited capacity in the U.S. to recover and process lithium from this scrap into the chemicals necessary for new battery cell production. There is no American capacity at this time to recycle the rare earths from NiMH batteries into new materials for such types of batteries, by the way.
I predict that the ramp-up of the production of EVs now underway will force the introduction of new vertically integrated processors (who produce new fine lithium chemicals for new cell manufacturing) of lithium-ion battery scrap. There is simply going to be (or already is) too much volume for the one (partial) service provider.
It is in this new industry now being born that the biggest impact of new and newly applied extraction and separation technologies will be the technologies of choice to capitalize on the security of supply and the environmental safety issues to be resolved.
If only I were 20 years younger…
Jack Lifton is the Sr. Editor for InvestorIntel Corp. and is the CEO for Jack Lifton, LLC. He is also a consultant, author, and lecturer ... <Read more about Jack Lifton>