Watercycle, RSBruce recover commercial-grade lithium and graphite from black mass

UK-based Watercycle Technologies and precious metal recovery specialist RSBruce Metals & Machinery have extracted commercial-grade lithium and almost 100% pure graphite from spent electric vehicle (EV) batteries, they announced on May 2

The partnership successfully undertook a feasibility study intended to maximize the recovery of graphite and lithium carbonate from spent batteries that can then be re-used in the EV supply chain.

Watercycle claimed that this was the first UK project to extract commercial-grade lithium carbonate and near-100% pure graphite, following testing on 1kg of black mass.

Black mass is a solid black powder recovered from the recycling of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries.

As well as lithium carbonate and graphite, the test extracted commercial-grade cobalt, nickel and manganese, the company said.

The partnership will now develop a tonnage-scale field trial. Watercycle planned to produce the UK’s first environmentally sound solution to critical mineral recycling and supply.

“We are piloting at [a volume of] 500 tonnes per year of black mass this year, to scale up to around 5,000 tpy over the next 24 months,” Isabelle Schenk, Watercycle’s head of strategic projects and development, told Fastmarkets on May 5.

There are a few companies moving into the anode recycling sector in anticipation of a boom in demand.

Initially, the project will market the recycled material to the UK before expanding internationally. “We’re targeting the re-use of graphite into anodes and other applications,” Schenk said.

There was currently a stronger focus on recycling cathode materials rather than anodes, because of the higher value of cathode raw materials such as lithium.

“The battery recycling market is estimated to grow to $23.2 billion by 2025 from $17.2 billion in 2020, at a [compound annual growth rate] of 6.1%,” Watercycle co-founder and chief executive officer Dr Seb Leaper said on May 2.

“There is therefore a fantastic commercial opportunity for companies that can recycle black mass,” he added. “Having proven that we can extract multiple high-grade materials, we can not only [hope to] generate significant revenue but also to aid the transition toward a circular economy.”

Watercycle claimed that its multi-step extraction process was less costly and more environmentally friendly than alternatives offered by its competitors.

RSBruce supplied the black mass for the study.

Fastmarkets is in consultation to launch two black mass payable indicators, delivered in the South Korean market and linked to the London Metal Exchange nickel price and to Fastmarkets’ standard-grade cobalt price assessment, low end.

South Korea is one of the major markets involved in buying, trading and consuming black mass.

A specific lithium payable was not yet included in the proposed price assessments, but Fastmarkets understands that the value of lithium is often built into the payables given for nickel and cobalt in the Asian black mass markets.

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