When batteries die what’s left over is a mess. Devilish “black mass” is a shredded, toxic mix from the insides of battery cells that have reached the end of their useful lives.
“That’s about as close as we go,” warns Benjamin Wickham, director of process chemistry at startup Altilium Metals. I had come within prodding distance of a tonne of the stuff at the battery recycling company’s test lab in Tavistock, on the edge of the Dartmoor national park.
That dark powder, and the valuable metals within it, will play an increasingly important role in decarbonising Britain’s economy over the coming years as electric vehicles become the norm. With 11m tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries expected to be in need of recycling worldwide between now and 2030, it could prove a big growth business.
Electric cars – for the moment at least – cost more upfront than petrol or diesel vehicles. The main reason is that batteries need expensive metals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese, rather than the iron, aluminium and oil needed to build and power an internal combustion engine.
Extraction of these minerals and an energy-intensive manufacturing process mean production of a new electric car generates more carbon than for an equivalent petrol or diesel model. However, that ignores the vast global extraction of fossil fuels required to keep internal combustion engines moving – and the unavoidable amounts of carbon they emit.
With electric cars, very little is lost to the environment. What’s more, according to Wickham, recycling spent batteries from 100,000 vehicles could yield as much as £350m worth of new materials.
Given that carmakers need to eventually cut net emissions from car production to zero, the vision of a circular process from old batteries to new is “less an opportunity and more a necessity”, says David Bott, head of innovation at the Society of Chemical Industry. “At the end of its life, a battery is just a slightly degraded version of its younger self. You just move around the electrons.”
Christian Marston, Altilium’s chief technology officer and a co-founder, estimates that by about 2040 the industry could get as much as 40% of its lithium from recycling, which will cut the need for dirty, energy-intensive mining. Recycling could save about 38% of the carbon and 35% of the cost of mining the same materials.
“The metal you can continuously recycle almost for ever,” says Marston. “What we’re aiming for is full battery circularity. We think of EV batteries as concentrated ore.”
Altilium has received £3m in grant funding from the UK government to help set up its Tavistock centre, where it will try to prove to investors that its processes can produce chemicals pure enough to go straight back into a battery.
Lithium prices soared during 2021, and some analysts warn of a looming a shortage of the lightweight metal amid growing worldwide demand for batteries. Sarah Colbourn, senior analyst at data company Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, predicts “supply deficits and a tight market”. But increased interest in battery recycling is also geopolitical: Europe and the US do not want to be dependent on materials from China.
“The real drive in North America and Europe will be from understanding that recycling can be a source of these materials,” says Colbourn.
China currently accounts for more than 70% of battery recycling capacity, she says, but US and European companies are racing to catch up and could benefit from a green subsidy war. In the US, Redwood Materials, run by former Tesla executive JB Straubel, this month won conditional commitment from the US government for a $2bn loan to support construction of a new plant in Nevada. Other US startups working on expanding capacity include Ascend Elements, Cirba Solutions and Li-Cycle. In the EU, Belgian materials company Umicore can recycle 7,000 tonnes a year, and is looking for a location to build a bigger plant.
“A lot of noise, movement and funding is happening in Europe,” said Julia Poliscanova, senior director for vehicles at campaign group Transport & Environment. “What we lack today is consistent commercial-scale recycling capacity.”
Recycling batteries uses relatively well-established technology that shreds the cells, then separates out the plastic that held the minerals. After that there are two main recovery processes: pyrometallurgy recovers metals with fire, but it cannot be used for lithium (the key material in the battery’s anode), or graphite (carbon layers from the cathode); hydrometallurgy uses acids in water to leach out the metals.
Altilium says lab tests show its process can recover 95% of the useful material – although whether that will work on an industrial scale is another matter. Marston says its base in the ancient stannary (tin mining) town of Tavistock in west Devon offers an opportunity to create a greener, more modern form of resource extraction. It will start processing about 100 tonnes of black mass next year – enough for about 300 cars.
However, it has plans for a much larger production plant in Teesside, perhaps taking advantage of tax breaks. It says this could, if successful, create between 100 and 200 high-value jobs by 2025, and process 150,000 car batteries a year, or 50,000 tonnes of black mass.
It has not yet secured the site or the investment, but Altilium has an advantage over some startups: the family of another co-founder, chief executive Kamran Mahdavi, already owns an old copper recovery plant in Bulgaria that will be converted to process battery materials.
The Altilium Teesside project has the support of Ben Houchen, Tees Valley’s Conservative mayor. And Green Lithium, a startup backed by commodities trader Trafigura, has selected the region for a plant to refine virgin lithium.
By 2030 there will be plenty of electric cars with stuttering batteries in the UK and Europe – even if the UK’s gigafactory prospects are looking bleak after the collapse of startup Britishvolt in January. Poliscanova says the EU and the UK should legislate to stop battery materials being shipped to China, and instead help create a home industry.
“Instead of spending more money on research, we need to spend more money on scaling,” she says. “We need policy for companies to move faster, and move out of labs.”