Black mass value will increase as recycling tech improves, Lithion says

Black mass will be increasingly valuable as recycling technology improves, Benoit Couture, the president of lithium-ion battery recycling company Lithion Recycling, told Fastmarkets in an exclusive interview

This is because developing hydrometallurgy processes that are being implemented globally will increase the value of black mass as more metals such as lithium are extracted and valorized more efficiently, he said.

“The value of black mass depends on what can be extracted from it, which is dependent on its composition as well as the technology used to process it. Lithion’s hydrometallurgy processes enable recovery of 98% of the black mass and over 95% of the nickel, cobalt and lithium found in it,” Couture said.

“The end products of hydrometallurgy are battery-grade strategic materials that can be looped back into the production of new batteries. Therefore, hydrometallurgy operators will be able to pay the fair value for the black mass based on its composition,” he said.

And as the use of hydrometallurgy processes becomes the norm, lithium will be accounted for in assessing the value of black mass.

“With pyrometallurgy, lithium is extremely difficult and not economically possible to recover, which is why pyrometallurgy operators leave it out of black mass valuation,” Couture said.

Used electric vehicle (EV) battery cells are typically shredded mechanically as a first step, before undergoing pyrometallurgy or hydrometallurgy to extract the critical minerals to feed back into the production loop.

Hydrometallurgical processes differ from pyrometallurgy by preserving the critical materials rather than burning them. It includes a leaching step that dissolves metallic oxides in an aqueous solution, as well as several precipitation and separation steps to obtain high-purity components.

“But hydrometallurgical processes can be complicated to implement, so they aren’t typically the first choice for recycling electric car batteries,” Couture said.

Lithion Recycling’s technology aims to economically recycle all chemistries of lithium-ion batteries from lithium-cobalt oxide to lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt, lithium-ion-manganese oxide, nickel-cobalt-aluminium and lithium-iron-phosphate.

Challenges

The wide range of composition and quality of black mass due to the many battery chemistries make it hard for recyclers to standardize and commoditize black mass.

“We do not see black mass becoming a commodity as its composition and quality varies too much. It is a complex product that requires the right processes to recover battery-grade materials,” Couture added.

“Moreover, as original equipment makers (OEMs) and battery makers are planning to close the loop, putting black mass on the open market defeats the purpose,” he said.

The ownership of black mass is also strategic because it is made of so much critical materials.

“OEMs and battery producers will continue to want to keep control of the black mass to secure a continuous supply of those critical materials. As the full value of black mass is tapped through perfected hydrometallurgy processes, black mass is unlikely to trade on the open market.

“The same can be said about cathode and battery production scrap; both are highly valuable and control will be key,” Couture said.

In September, Montreal, Canada-based Lithion Recycling announced a partnership with General Motors to pursue a circular closed-loop EV battery ecosystem, with the latter making a strategic investment in Lithion’s Series A financing round.

The partnership will focus on the validation of Lithion’s recovered battery materials for use in the production of new batteries, and potential to acquire battery materials, as well as joint investment in research and development for both recycling processes and recyclability of future battery design.

GM is looking to scale battery cell and EV production in North America to more than 1 million units of annual capacity by 2025, and wants to grow a supporting supply chain and recycling strategy along with this expansion, especially in recovering and reusing the raw material in its Ultium battery packs.

Improved technology critical

The performance and choice of recycling technologies are also important to recover lithium and bring it to the right purity to close the loop.

“Reaching battery-grade specifications demands more investment and technical expertise from recyclers and should not be overlooked by the supply chain as this new stream develops in the future to make sure it is done in an economical way,” Couture said.

Couture cited Lithion’s shredding and hydrometallurgy technology as an example.

“Lithion’s best-in-class shredding process accepts charged lithium-ion batteries of any shapes and type and produces hydrometallurgically ready black mass. Less handling and higher quality output make our process less costly, which is how Lithion reaches battery-grade specifications economically,” Couture said.

There also needs to be more discussions between battery makers and recyclers to encourage recycling-friendly design, he said.

“This will prevent extra costs and to deal with non-recyclable materials in the long run. Moreover, as the precursor cathode active material and cathode active material industry evolves and expands in North America, recyclers who produce sulfates will create synergies and hubs to reduce costs,” Couture added.

To keep up to date with the latest news and insights in the battery materials market, visit our dedicated battery materials page.

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