Chemical engineers helping to close the loop on electric car batteries

Article by Adam Duckett

CHEMICAL engineers at Imperial College London are working with Altilium Metals to prove that electric car batteries produced with recycled material can match those produced with virgin resources.

Altilium Metals, which has a demonstration process for recycling batteries in Devon, UK and plans for a full-scale facility in Teesside, has announced that it delivered the first samples of its recycled material to Imperial College in April. The so-called cathode active material (CAM) consists of critical elements including lithium, nickel and cobalt that are used in the production of electric vehicle batteries. Imperial will now compare the electrochemical performance of the recycled cathode materials with commercially manufactured cathodes made from mined raw materials.

Magda Titirici, chair in sustainable energy materials at Imperial College’s chemical engineering department, said: “We are excited to be working with Altilium Metals on the very important issue of creating a circular battery supply chain, which will make a significant contribution towards achieving the UK’s net zero goals. As well as testing the recycled cathode materials, our research team will be working to optimise their performance to the same or even higher levels as cathodes made from virgin metals.”

Titirici is working on the project alongside Anna Hankin, leader of the electrochemical systems laboratory research group in chemical engineering, and co-lead of Imperial College's electrochemistry network.

The CAM will be used in coin cells and single-layer pouch cells, similar to the ones used to power the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle that is manufactured in the UK.

Kamran Mahdavi, CEO of Altilium Metals, said: “We have to electrify transport to have any chance of getting to net zero. That is not going to happen without large volumes of critical metals and our approach is to recover these in a sustainably way from existing waste streams promoting a circular economy. We have to build the recycling infrastructure and it needs to be done now.”

Dave Ketcher, project delivery lead at the Advanced Propulsion Centre which is helping fund the work with Imperial College through its scale-up readiness validation competition, said: “This is an exciting step forward in the challenge to improve the critical materials supply for the electrification of vehicles. The programme also demonstrates the benefits of sustainable end-of life battery recycling, which will drive the circular economy for these battery materials whilst reducing the UK’s dependency on overseas supply chains.”

Pressure is on to diversify supplies of minerals critical to the development of greener technologies required to meet climate targets. The International Energy Agency has warned that demand for minerals needed for clean energy technologies will increase fourfold by 2040 compared to 2020. Last year, the UK’s Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre warned that of 26 critical minerals, 18 have high supply disruption risks that leave the UK economically vulnerable. It also noted that China dominates the supply of many crucial elements.

Last year, Altilium Metals opened a battery recycling technology centre in Devon which includes a scale-up processing line that will inform its choices for materials handling and scalability at its Teesside recycling plant. Earlier this year, Altilium completed a six-month feasibility study outlining plans for the Teesside facility which include chemical plants producing 95,000 t/y of battery precursors, including nickel sulfate and lithium carbonate, and 30,000 t/y of cathode active material (CAM) recovered from end-of-life EV batteries and waste from gigafactories.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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