According to Nishchay Chadha of ACE Green, while there are batteries available in laptops, phones and other consumer electronics, more feedstock will inevitably be required to meet the demand to recycle spent batteries as the electric vehicle (EV) market grows.
“Some large recycling plants are already running dry due to a lack of batteries, and there remains a big question mark around which battery chemistries will be in play in the coming years ahead,” he told Fastmarkets in a recent interview.
“It would be better to set up smaller plants to have a foothold in certain markets and then grow as they expand, or contract as they decline,” he added.
This situation however is expected to reverse in the next few years, when scrap battery supply from upcoming gigafactories and end-of-life EV may outstrip recycling capacity, Chadha noted.
Additionally, Chadha said that legislative requirements to reduce resource scarcity and improve sustainability will raise battery recycling rates, putting further pressure on feedstock needs.
Singapore- and Houston-headquartered ACE Green has created commercialized technology solutions at scale for the recycling of different varieties of batteries. The company is working with players across the battery ecosystem to create localized circular solutions to ensure critical battery materials remain within the countries generating battery waste.
According to Chadha, the current lack of processing capacity means that most black mass – shredded material from end-of-life batteries, including lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper – generated in Europe is currently exported to Asia.
But recycling requirements under new EU battery regulations could see black mass exports fall to zero by 2025 in a bid to keep it within the trade bloc.
“We’re going to see more restrictions on exports of black mass on the recycling side because there’s a realization that processing batteries and exporting the black mass doesn’t add any value and just leaves waste products behind for the host recycling country,” he said.
“I’m a big supporter of restricting black mass exports; it helps to develop local ecosystems. Europe’s move towards restricting black mass exports is a good thing. The same thing will need to happen in the US and India,” he added.
ACE Green is, according to Chadha, battery technology-agnostic.
The company’s initial technology was developed for recycling lead-acid batteries, with its process replacing the smelting furnace and instead operating a hydrometallurgical process at room temperature on electricity.
According to the company, its process has zero Scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions and reduces solid waste that goes to landfill by more than 80%.
In 2019, the company started working on lithium-ion battery chemistries to create proprietary recycling processes for other batteries including lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) and nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) chemistries. It can also separate the copper and aluminium electrode metals when producing black mass.
The flexibility of ACE Green’s technology allows it to deal with different types of scrap which will come to market in the years ahead, Chadha said.
“When scrap really starts to come to the market, in five to six years’ time, the market will be bombarded by many varieties, and recyclers cannot pick and choose. They have to make sure their technology is flexible enough to absorb all of these different chemistries and sizes,” Chadha told Fastmarkets.
“Battery chemistries, depending on the player and the price point, will be extremely different in different regions. If we want to be a global player, we need to make sure the technology can handle all chemistries around the world,” he added.
Currently, NCM batteries dominate battery chemistries in North America and Europe, while LFP batteries are widely used in China.
LFP batteries are also popular in battery energy storage systems (BESS). Fastmarkets analyst Phoebe O’Hara forecasts that total BESS will expand to 2,520 GWh by 2033, from 480GWh currently.
ACE Green’s goal is to start small and scale up its presence as the market grows.
“Scalability is very important. All the world’s cars cannot run on lithium batteries alone, and so we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket. We can recycle lead and lithium-ion batteries, and if something else develops in the future we’ll work to recycle that too,” Chadha said.
To this end, the company’s philosophy is to be modular. This allows it to manufacture precursors and various metal salts, including sulfates, carbonates, hydroxides and their combinations, as per customer requirements.
“The evolution of battery technology means you can’t forecast what the chemistry will be in five years’ time,” Chadha noted.
“Our modularity means capex is lower, the result is localized, and puts recycling in the reach of more people which in turn supports more responsible recycling. If all processing can be done locally, it limits the hazards of transporting scrap lithium-ion batteries,” he said.
“The more we look at this market, the more we see the need to create domestic supply chains. While we are working to have a very global presence, we are facilitating the electrification transition by creating localized supply chains,” he added.
ACE Green has also developed closed-loop chemical discharging solutions for small format batteries, Chadha noted. These are critical to ensure safe storage, handling and shredding of batteries as they pose a very high safety risk, he said.
The company has a plant in India for lithium-ion batteries and is constructing a plant in the US state of Texas which is slated to be up and running in the second half of next year.
The site in Texas, which will recycle both lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries, aims to process and recycle as much as 100,000 tonnes of used lead-acid batteries and 20,000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries per year.
The company is meanwhile working on joint ventures in Indonesia, South Africa and Asia, and also licenses its technology in India, Taiwan and Israel, with licensing discussions ongoing in North America, Europe and Japan, Chadha said.
“The battery recycling market is potentially very large, and we expect it to be very substantial. One company cannot be the winner – there will be many ecosystems developing at a local level and also there will be numerous global players too,” he noted.
“We have to be open-minded to set up our own plants while being flexible enough to license our technology to others or form JVs. We cannot be in every country,” he added.
Partnerships to date include with Glencore, as well as agreements with Pondy Oxides & Chemicals (POCL), Seiger and Hop Electric in India, ACME Metals in Taiwan, Tabono Investments in South Africa and Hakurnas Lead Works in Israel.
The company also expects partnerships with automotive companies to become more commonplace once EV batteries reach their end-of-life.
“Auto companies have been slower to participate but the sense of urgency isn’t there yet; it will be there in 18-24 months or so, when their own EV production grows,” he told Fastmarkets.
“When it is there, everyone will scramble, and partnerships will come into play,” he added.
In Hotter Commodities, special correspondent Andrea Hotter covers some of the biggest stories impacting the natural resources sector. Sign up today to receive Andrea’s content as it is published.