Rating: High school and post-secondary
Summary: What to do with electric vehicle batteries at the end of their life is an important issue for consumers and environmental groups. A Canadian company, Li-Cycle of Mississauga, Ontario has the solution. Its patented process recycles 95% of battery materials, which are then re-used to make new batteries.
This transcript of the video interview has been lightly edited.
Markham Hislop: Energy Media readers have often heard me say that the future is electric and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that batteries are key to that electric future. But with batteries come problems with recycling. Your average EV battery lasts seven to 10 years. What happens to it afterwards? Well, a company in Mississauga, Ontario, Li-Cycle, has got a solution for that. We’re going to be talking to the executive director, Tim Johnston. So speaking from his car on a business trip, we really appreciate this, Tim, welcome to the interview.
Tim Johnston: Thank you very much, Markham. It’s great to be on.
Markham Hislop: I’m really excited to hear about this because this solves a significant problem for the electric vehicle industry. So give us an overview of your company and how your patented and very innovative technology works.
Tim Johnston: LI-Cycle started four years ago. It was founded by myself and our CEO Ajay Kochhar. We came from the battery and chemical production industry. So we were working for companies for over a decade producing chemicals that go into batteries. And one of the things, as you said, right at the start of this is with electrification with batteries, there inherently becomes a question as to, well, what happens with those batteries at the end of their life? And we were very unsatisfied with the responses that we got. And as we looked into the industry, knowing what’s in the batteries, we’re like, “well, this doesn’t make sense.” Batteries are not a problem. They’re not a waste. In fact, they’re a huge opportunity. They’re highly amenable to be processed and being able to be processed to a point in which we can recover those materials.
LI-Cycle really started on that premise. But core to it was three key principles, the first being safety. What we do today is reprocess any type of lithium-ion batteries, even the smallest format that you can imagine. Cell phones, laptops, etc., all the way up to and including full-electric vehicle modules. We process them in whatever charge state they come to us. And so we don’t discharge batteries. It’s very important. Coming back to that, that safety principle, we had to be able to do that safely. Then the technology itself had to lend itself to being scalable because of course, you can’t have a sustainable solution without actually being able to do that in a way that actually makes money.
Markham Hislop: Now here’s something that I find very interesting. Your company recycles 95 per cent of the battery, and is essentially you’re creating a circular supply chain because those materials then can go back into the manufacturer of new batteries. Have I got that right?
Tim Johnston: That’s correct. We process all those different sizes of lithium-ion batteries through our through stage process. We have what we call a spoke and hub model that relates to the business model. But as well as the technology whereby in the spokes, we’re taking those batteries in, we’re processing them through to intermediate products, in particular, we’re after the active materials, the anode and cathode materials from within the battery.
Those facilities, they’re zero discharge facilities, they’re low capital intensity. 5,000 tons per year of battery feed as a standard size. So that perfect for being situated close to high population centres, where batteries have been generated from.
Those materials then go on to our hub facility. Our hub is our larger refining facility, which is being fed by multiple spokes. Hence the concept of the spoke and hub model. At the hub facility, we’re then taking those intermediate products and we’re turning them back into battery-grade chemicals to go back into the battery industry whilst benefiting from the economies of scale, through having a larger centralized processing facility.
Markham Hislop: Now, I understand that you’re North America’s largest lithium-ion battery recycler, and very exciting news, you announced there’s going to be a new plant opening in Rochester, New York in 2022. And I found out about it through a press release issued by the New York state government, which is very excited to have you solve this problem for them. And I understand that you’re going to be actually expanding internationally. So very exciting, congratulations
Tim Johnston: Oh, thank you very much. We started off here in Rochester, which is where I am today, uh, with our spoke facility here. So we’re preprocessing batteries and producing these intermediate materials. As you said, we announced a hub facility that refining facility which is coming in the not so distant future now. But that’s really the start. LI-Cycles business model and concept has always been to address batteries on a region by region basis, getting those spokes close to where batteries are being generated, and then bringing those materials into regional hub processing facilities that we can produce those materials to go back in the batteries somewhat locally to where batteries are being produced.
Markham Hislop: Now as you expand internationally, is this the kind of technology that can scale up to handle the enormous amount of batteries that we’ll see as electric vehicles begin to accelerate, the sales begin to accelerate, during the 2020s?
Tim Johnston: The spoke facilities are a fully modularized design. What we mean by that is that here in Rochester, for example, our spoke plant arrived on the 3rd of November. We were able to start commissioning some manufacturing scrap on the 4th of December. Within four weeks we had a fully functional plant. That’s a 5,000 ton per year facility. It’s a low capital-intensity plant. So from a scalability perspective, from a rollout perspective, quite easy. From a permitting perspective, we’re talking about zero-liquid discharge from any of our facilities, minimal to no air emissions because we don’t do any high-temperature processing. And so from a permitting perspective, it’s also relatively straightforward and we’ve had great support not only here in North America, but in other parts of the world.
Markham Hislop: Can you give us a brief description of how your technology works?
Tim Johnston: So we take batteries in, and our spoke facility is centred around what we call an emerge shredding process. So basically we’re shredding batteries in an immersion solution. That’s really dealing with two issues. One is we’re preventing the batteries from catching fire whilst they’re being discharged and processed. Then the second part of it is we’re chemically treating the electrolyte from within the battery to avoid the production of any harmful compounds that we don’t want in our system.
Within the spoke facility, we then separated out into those three key products; low-density plastic, copper, aluminum, foil-based product, and then what we refer to as “black mass,” which is the active anode and cathode materials from within the battery. That’s the spoke facility.
At the hub, we’re staying with the same theme with no high-temperature processing. We’re taking that black mass material in the active components, we’re putting it through a leaching and refining process. What we refer to as a hydrometallurgical process, which is basically a water-based process whereby we’re removing different metals. We recover copper sulphide, manganese, carbonate, nickel, sulphate, cobalt, sulphate, lithium, to name a few. Then we refine them to the point where they can go back into batteries.
Markham Hislop: Final question Tim. You set up in Canada. Why Canada? Is that just a coincidence because that’s where everybody happened to be from or did Ontario and a Canadian location offer any advantages?
Tim Johnston: We’ve had huge support from the Ontario and the Canadian governments through SDDC and other programs, bio innovation, Canada. It was quite an easy process, I would say in terms of setting up and developing that technology in that jurisdiction. Our footprint continues to grow mostly focusing on where the batteries are going in population centres and chasing after that. But it would start in Canada because we were there, but we chose to stay in Canada because of the benefits associated with trying to develop sustainable technologies.