INTERVIEW: Li-Cycle sees Rochester EV battery hub as ‘start of something big’

Battery recycling start-up Li-Cycle sees the commercial production achieved at its Rochester, New York, plant as the start of something big.

The plant, which achieved commercial production last December, has dthe capacity to process 5,000 tonnes of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries per year, doubling overall intake for the Canadian company, which is the first of its kind to use hydrometallurgy for electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling in North America.

Li-Cycle says its process allows it to recover 95% of elements and materials that make up lithium-ion batteries, compared with the industry average of around 50%.

And the growth of this kind of recycling will be crucial if the automotive industry is to meet the ambitious targets for a shift away from internal combustion engines, chief commercial officer Kunal Phalpher told Fastmarkets in an interview.

“The goal is to create a secondary supply, or additional supply, for critical battery materials, so that’s really the driving force of why the business started. But as the need for critical materials grows, the demand for more sustainable solutions on the end of life are required,” he said.

Industry challenge

Li-Cycle’s expansion comes at a time when the price of many industrial commodities, such as copper and aluminium, have risen to multi-year highs, with investors betting that demand, fueled by environmentally-focused post-pandemic fiscal policies, will outstrip supply.

And the trend is apparent in battery metals too, Fastmarkets’ cobalt hydroxide index 30% co min, cif China hit a two-year high of $23.95 per pound on February 26.

The shift from internal combustion to electric vehicles also brings with it a challenge for the industry; how to replicate the lead-acid battery’s almost infinite recyclability with more complex lithium-ion, nickel-cobalt replacements.

“The technology to recycle lithium ion batteries is very different to, say, recycling a lead-acid battery or just pure recycling. There’s a lot more chemistry involved in separating the materials,” Phalpher said.

High prices certainly help incentivise the collection and processing of these batteries; Li-Cycle’s process enables it to recover nickel, cobalt, lithium, copper and graphite, he added.

Spoke and hub
Li-Cycle’s Rochester plant is what it calls one of it’s ‘spokes,’ where electric vehicle batteries of all kinds are shredded by robots and sorted into what the industry terms ‘black mass’ - a mineral-rich slurry from which individual sulphides or carbonates can be extracted.

To do this, the company is in the process of constructing a separate ‘hub’ plant, also in Rochester, where battery-grade chemicals will be produced by taking the black mass through a hydrometallurgical process.

The builds have been scheduled to start up in line with when the first generation of fully electric vehicles starts to be scrapped in North America.

“Over the past 12 months [things have been] and in the next 24 months, things [will be getting] very interesting; there’s a lot more focus on this [recycling] because the vehicles are actually hitting the road,” Phalpher said.

Li-Cycle plans to expand beyond North America into Europe and eventually Asia he added.

Part of this is likely to be funded by new investment; Reuters reported in February that Li-Cycle would be going public through a merger with Peridot Acquisition Corp. The new company, Li-Cycle Holdings Corp, will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has been valued at $1.67 billion. Phalpher declined to comment on the matter.

For now, the focus is on building out the Rochester facilities and scaling up from there.

“I think we’re in an extremely exciting space at the right time. Personally, I always had a big interest in the automotive industry and it’s come full circle,” Phalpher said.

“There are not many opportunities in a lifetime to be part of such a rapidly growing sector,” he added.

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