Canadian startup scales up lithium battery recycling

Canadian startup scales up lithium battery recycling

Business news |
By Nick Flaherty

Li-Cycle’s battery recycling uses a wet chemical process that starts with shreding the lithium cells to recover a wide range of metals in a closed loop. 

“Tim Johnston, my co-founder, and I initially sketched out the Li-Cycle process in late 2016,” said Ajay Kochhar, co-founder and CEO of Li-Cycle who studied chemical engineering at the University of Toronto Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. “We started by looking at the financial model to see if the business could be viable. The initial answer that emerged was yes, so we were encouraged to pursue the opportunity further.”

Li-Cycle can currently process more than a tonne of batteries each day at its pilot plant in Kingston, Ontario. The boom in electric vehicles means the company is planning an expansion to process more than 17 tonnes per day.

“In the incumbent industry, the key material they are recovering is cobalt. This is what is driving the process and economics,” said Kochhar, who did consulting work for a number of companies in the mining and metals industry before starting Li-Cycle. He worked with collaborators to develop a process based on hydrometallurgy, or wet chemistry. This safely shreds incoming batteries, reducing them into tiny pieces. From there, the batteries are run through a series of chemical reactions and separations. The result is recovery not only of cobalt, but also lithium, nickel and other substances, up to 80 per cent to 100 per cent of the original battery.

“Our end products are equivalent in grade to those that would be produced from a virgin source,” said Kochhar. “They can go right back into the battery supply chain.”

Li-Cycle can recycle any type of lithium-ion battery and is completely agnostic to chemistry, form factor, prior application and size, he says. But batteries from EVs, one of Li-Cycle’s target markets, contain less cobalt and are bulkier and more difficult to process compared to those from personal electronics.

Next: Electric vehicle battery recycling

“Tesla, BMW and their peers ultimately don’t want to pay to have their batteries recycled,” said Kochhar. “Our approach enables resource recovery from lithium-ion batteries to actually be profitable to the point where we have flexibility for alternate commercial models.”

The company plans to open a full-scale battery recycling plant in the US that can process 5,000 tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries per year. It has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Sungho Group, a major metals recycler in South Korea, where they hope to create a hub for the Asian market. They are also actively planning a battery recycling plant in Europe.

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