Recycling batteries seems like a no-brainer. But our track record has been lousy.
Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but in Canada, the U.S., and many European countries, it’s estimated that only two to 11 per cent of lithium-ion batteries find their way to a recycling facility when they die. Instead, they sit forgotten in cupboards or drawers or worse, end up in landfills.
Electric cars could change that. Their batteries are too big, too toxic, and too valuable to simply throw away. The global EV revolution has given rise to a new recycling industry that hopes to capitalize on this future waste problem and help solve a looming minerals shortage.
“I think of it as urban mining,” says Ajay Kochhar, co-founder and CEO of Li-Cycle, a Canadian battery recycler that wants to make sure the precious minerals in EV batteries don’t go to waste.
Li-Cycle’s Kingston, Ont. facility doesn’t resemble a mine; there’s no hole in the ground or tailings. Instead, a handful of workers unpack skids of old or defective electric vehicle battery modules, carefully lifting them onto a conveyor belt. Then, one by one, they are dropped into a chemical solution before being shredded.
This stage of the recycling process breaks down the batteries into three distinct components: plastics, metals, and black mass. The latter is Li-Cycle’s bread and butter.
Black mass is a dark, shiny dirt-like substance that contains a concoction of minerals needed for new batteries. To retrieve them, the black mass must go through a complex process that involves using an acid solution to leach and separate the minerals. The end products are battery-grade materials ready to be sold back to battery manufacturers.
This new technology is being perfected by a cluster of Canadian battery recyclers, all vying for their slice of the global market. The first wave of end-of-life EV batteries is expected to come in 2030, when an estimated 1.7 million tonnes of battery waste will need to be disposed of.
And that’s just the beginning.
More cars, more minerals
Today, there are about 20 million passenger EVs on the road. While that’s a small fraction of the global fleet, there could be 10 times that amount by the end of the decade, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Countries, including Canada, have set ambitious targets for all new car sales to be zero emission by the end of the next decade. That’s left car manufacturers scrambling to keep up with demand — faced with the daunting task of re-imagining their fleets and supply chains.
“There really hasn’t been a change of this scale since we moved from the horse and buggy to the original combustion engine, which was a process that took over 100 years,” says Evan Pivnick, a program manager at Clean Energy Canada, a think tank focused on climate and the energy transition. “This time, we’re trying to get there in just a couple of decades.”
Powering most electric vehicles are huge lithium-ion battery packs that can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Battery chemistries vary slightly, but lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, and manganese are considered crucial for these new batteries.
These minerals are more than sufficient in the earth’s crust, but unevenly distributed, says Steven B. Young, an industrial ecologist and associate professor at the University of Waterloo.
A handful of nations produce the world’s critical mineral supply. Lithium is sourced from Australia and increasingly, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia — a region of South America now dubbed “the lithium triangle.” China produces graphite, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo provides cobalt.
The demand for minerals is expected to skyrocket over the next two decades. The IEA predicts nickel and cobalt demand will surge to more than 60 per cent, and lithium nearly 90 per cent.
The issue that will plague the EV movement in the years to come is the global mining industry’s inability to keep pace. In a scenario that meets the Paris Agreement goals, the IEA estimates that lithium and cobalt will be in short supply by 2030 — with today’s mines only able to provide about half of what’s needed for the overall energy transition.
“A mine does take a long time to build in most countries,” Pivnick says. “So we’ve got this supply and demand crunch that’s being forecast.”
There’s a consensus that more mining is necessary to decarbonize global transport. But long-term, even if we could mine indefinitely, there’s the question of whether we should. Mineral extraction comes with heavy environmental and human costs.
“There is a fundamental sort of tradeoff or contradiction,” Young says. “We need more of this stuff to make our modern lives more sustainable for everyone, but because it’s inequitably dispersed, the environmental impacts and the social impacts will also be inequitably distributed.”
That’s where recycling comes in. Part of the solution to this supply problem lies in what happens to EV batteries when they run out of juice.
When Kochhar and his business partner Tim Johnston started Li-Cycle in 2016, people would ask them why they were even bothering to recover lithium.
“Lo and behold, that’s proven to be important six years later,” Kochhar says. “Lithium is the most valuable component now of those batteries.”
Traditionally, batteries have been recycled through smelting, a high-temperature melting-and-extraction process that can recover cobalt, nickel, and copper but not lithium, which gets burned off. It’s an energy-intensive method that can emit toxic fumes that are harmful to people and the environment.
In the 20 years since Sony released the first rechargeable lithium-ion battery, researchers and engineers have been developing greener, more efficient ways to recycle them through hydrometallurgy. Technological breakthroughs in this field weren’t enough, though, to kickstart the lithium-ion battery recycling industry in North America.
After all, the batteries that power our devices are typically small and you’d need to recycle a whole lot of them to turn a profit. Instead, old or defective batteries are typically shipped off to China or South Korea, countries with established battery manufacturing and recycling markets.
Electric cars with their briefcase-sized battery modules will give this new generation of Canadian recyclers the stock they need to run commercial operations and be profitable. Li-Cycle is seen as a pioneer in lithium-ion battery recycling in this country, and is now expanding its reach across the U.S. and Europe with new 10,000-tonne-capacity plants in Alabama, Arizona, Norway, and Germany.
Right now, Li-Cycle’s black mass is sold to outside vendors. But later this year, they will open a new plant in upstate New York where they’ll produce raw battery materials — like lithium carbonate, nickel sulphate, and cobalt sulfate — in-house. That plant, which it calls “the hub,” will become one of the first sources of recycled lithium in North America.
“We’re getting up to 95 per cent recoverable material from those batteries,” Kochhar says.
Li-Cycle’s competitors here in Canada are not far behind.
On the west coast, RecycLiCo uses its five-stage patented process to recover 100 per cent of minerals in the black mass. At their pilot plant in Richmond, B.C., they are perfecting leaching the minerals from black mass at scale. CEO Zarko Meseldzija is banking on a future in which battery makers will bake in the recycling process at their new facilities.
Also in B.C., Cirba Solutions operates a legacy battery recycling facility in Trail where it’s already taking in EV batteries. The company has five other facilities in the U.S. that do the first stage of recycling and has plans to add hydrometallurgical processing to their existing Ohio plant this year.
David Klanecky, the CEO of Cirba Solutions, says he’s eyeing an expansion to Quebec since the province is leading Canada in electric vehicle sales, second only to B.C.
General Motors plans to build a battery manufacturing facility in Bécancour, Que., and that sweetens the deal.
“We’re actively looking at areas in the Quebec region to expand our footprint there,” Klanecky says.
They’ll face stiff competition. Quebec-based Lithion Recycling is building its first full-scale commercial facility there, which is expected to be completed later this year. They’re licensing their patented mechanical shredding process to whoever wants it, giving auto recyclers the opportunity to get into the battery recycling business and establishing a network of local plants that will provide Lithion with black mass.
The company has already penned a deal with GM to supply them with recycled battery-grade materials for use in their new EV line.
What’s behind the battery recycling boom
Car manufacturers have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Canadian battery recyclers. They have a vested interest in having a robust, local recycling network at their fingertips where they can offload rejects while getting a consistent supply of lithium, cobalt and nickel.
Today, most mineral refining and battery manufacturing happens in Asia, and particularly in China. But geopolitical tensions and supply chain disruptions due to COVID lockdowns there have sparked a massive push to bring battery-making home to North America.
The passing of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act adds even more momentum to this shift.
Tax credits have spurred plans to build a handful of gigafactories, giant facilities where they make EV batteries, in the United States in the coming years. Tesla and Volkswagen have also set their sights on Canada for their new regional gigafactories due to the country’s abundance of clean hydro energy.
“Hydropower is really important to make sure that we’re not just making electric vehicles that will cut greenhouse gases enormously, but that we build the batteries, and the EVs in the most sustainable way that we can,” says David Paterson, vice president of corporate and environmental affairs for GM Canada.
The goal is to create a regional ecosystem where the entire value chain — renewable-energy supply, raw material, battery manufacturing, recycling — comes together. That’s what people mean when they refer to developing a “circular economy” around electric vehicles. It promises to lower greenhouse gas emissions and the costs of the battery, something experts agree needs to happen to make EVs cheaper and accelerate adoption.
That circular dream has not yet materialized, but it has a lot of hype and money backing it. Both the U.S. and Canadian governments have made multi-billion-dollar investments in establishing this new auto sector in North America. Recycling is just one part of that vision, albeit an important one.
“There’s so much unknown that’s left to be decided,” Pivnick says. Even still, he’s optimistic. Last year, Canada came in second in a global EV battery supply chain ranking, surpassing the U.S. and behind only China.
Recyclers are building the plane as they fly. Different vehicle manufacturers have adopted different battery types and configurations. Lithium-ion is the favourite chemistry right now, but innovations in battery technology abound. BMW recently announced it will build its own solid-state batteries, a new type of battery technology that proponents say is more efficient, safer, and produces fewer emissions than lithium-ion batteries.
Collection and transportation of batteries is also logistically difficult and expensive. EV batteries are heavy and classified as hazardous goods since they retain a significant charge. The battery packs pose another challenge. They’re designed to be hard to dismantle, presumably for safety reasons, forcing recyclers to find workarounds like shredding entire packs without discharging and disassembling them.
The biggest challenge Canadian recyclers say they face today is getting their hands on enough supply. For now, they’re surviving off battery manufacturing scrap, EV defects, and consumer batteries, like laptops, cell phones, and power tools. The batteries currently powering electric cars are lasting 10 to 20 years, which is longer than expected, but the industry remains confident that come 2030, there will be more than enough batteries to go around.
“We’re going to increase our capacity by over 600 per cent in the next three to four years from what we currently have today,” says Klanecky of Cirba Solutions. “That’s what keeps me up at night. … We’ve got to build more plants, faster.”
How fast they’re able to scale up will determine how large a role recycled battery materials will play in reducing the need for mining, Pivnick says.
Another factor: how governments will choose to regulate the market.
The European Union has reached the first stage of an agreement that would make it the battery maker’s responsibility to dispose of the battery at its end-of-life. Laws like this already exist in Canada for household batteries and e-waste.
The EU is also considering mandating a minimum amount of recycled materials in new batteries: 16 per cent for cobalt, six per cent for lithium, and six per cent for nickel. This would be good news for recyclers, but an added hurdle for car makers who want cars off the production lines as fast as possible.
Paterson, from automaker GM, warns that too much regulation happening too fast could be bad for business and innovation. He cites a misstep the Quebec government made two years ago when developing regulations on what to do with end-of-life EV batteries.
“There are a lot of sort of kneejerk desires to regulate this because there is a notion that if we don’t regulate this immediately, it will get out of control,” Paterson says. “It’s regulating a problem that doesn’t exist yet. We have some time to do it properly.”
Time is the one thing many Canadian recyclers feel they are up against. It’s a race to see whose technological prowess and business model will win out as supply chains solidify and the EV battery tsunami makes landfall.