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Revolt: the technologies paving the way for Li-ion battery recycling

A sustainable approach from day 1

With the sustainability of industries high on the global agenda, the circumstances surrounding how products and solutions are manufactured and managed at end-of-life must be prioritized. It’s not enough that a solution simply serves a sustainable function through usage alone.

 

It’s through this lens that Northvolt approaches Li-ion batteries and is motivated to establish a robust European ecosystem for battery recycling.

 

Now at the beginning of the transition to battery powered electric vehicles, we are facing a change that carries consequences on societal, industrial and environmental levels.

 

That this industrial revolution is centered around Li-ion batteries, solutions whose manufacture both requires the extraction and use of Earth’s resources and significant amounts of energy, underscores the importance of its adopting a sustainable approach as early as possible.

 

The need is heightened further still by the fact that the forecasted demand for Li-ion cells is so great – as many as 250 million electric cars may be on the roads by 2030, according to IEA’s EV30@30 Scenario, up from around 5 million today.

 

As a battery manufacturer, Northvolt’s response to the situation is two-fold.

 

First, a commitment to utilizing clean energy and sustainable practices throughout manufacturing activities. And second, at the other end of battery lifetimes, delivery of effective solutions for battery recycling which maximize the return of valuable materials to their elemental form for reintroduction into supply chains.

 

We have to establish a new standard not only for manufacturing batteries, but how we recycle them too. Recycled Li-ion batteries will be an agent of change in the energy world and a critical piece of the puzzle in fulfilment of global sustainable development ambitions.

– Emma Nehrenheim, Chief Environmental Officer, Northvolt

 

Recycling can be challenging and this especially so in the case of recycling EV batteries – complex systems containing numerous valuable elements and materials. If done without care, recycling methods also have the potential to be more harmful for the environment than raw material extraction.

 

Fortunately, battery recycling isn’t without a solid foundation and there are established technologies to work with.

 

People might be surprised to learn that the vast majority of today’s Li-ion batteries are in fact recycled, and that this recycling is undertaken using effective technologies, producing large yields of high-quality material.

 

That said, the shift to EVs brings new challenges for battery recycling which must be handled at practical, technological and policy levels – issues presented in ‘Securing a robust European ecosystem for Li-ion battery recycling’.

 

Northvolt is establishing solutions for this future by refining recycling technologies and supporting effective market conditions for battery recycling in Europe.

 

 

What to recover

The manufacture of Li-ion batteries requires sourcing of raw materials, some of which are relatively rare. Li-ion batteries featuring NMC chemistry for instance, which Northvolt will produce, require as primary materials for active material the metal oxides nickel (Ni), cobalt (Co), lithium (Li) and manganese (Mn). Besides these, batteries also require other metals and plastics for various components including wiring, electronics and casings.

 

Of most interest are metals including copper, aluminum and steel, and active materials found in the electrodes which are of the highest value.

 

Most materials found in batteries can be recovered and recycled. And the intention of Northvolt’s recycling program is to maximize recovery of high-quality materials and to do so using methods which minimize the environmental footprint of recycling. Doing so will close the loop on battery manufacturing and lead to three key beneficial outcomes:

  • Reduction in consumption of raw (virgin) materials
  • Reduction in the environmental footprint of cells (and in effect EVs)
  • Support a new European economy

 

The recycling process

After collection and energy recovery through deep discharging, battery packs will be dismantled down to at least the module level. For this, we envision developing highly automated machinery, utilizing machine vision and smart software to identify battery pack models, thereby facilitating their disassembly and recycling.  

 

There are advantages to automation of recycling processes, including increasing efficiency and reducing costs. Automation will also be safer, reducing operator exposure to risks associated with the dismantling.   

 

Dismantling allows for steel casings, aluminum current collectors in the modules, copper bus bars and wiring, as well as plastics and other electronics, to be recovered for external recycling. 

 

Cells and modules will then be crushed in an inert environment, and electrolyte solvent evaporated 

 

The now crushed remaining material constituents are then sorted depending on mechanical properties such as density, size and magneticity. For this, air separators, sieves, and magnetic separators are usedand copper and aluminum are isolated for recycling. The remaining material, known as black mass, is then subjected to a hydrometallurgical process. 

 

 

 

 

Hydrometallurgy – commonly known as hydromet – involves dissolving metals in a solution containing sulfuric acid under optimized conditions. Impurities such as copper, iron, and aluminum are then removed using techniques including precipitation, solvent extraction and ionic exchange. 

 

Now free from impurities, the nickel, manganese and cobalt are recovered in one solution using solvent extraction. Although high-quality, this NMC solution isn’t necessarily immediately fit for being reintroduced into battery manufacturing and so concentration levels and ratios of the solution are adjusted accordingly.  

 

Finally, battery-grade lithium can be recovered from the remaining solution. 

 

Precise extraction rates vary metal to metal, but in general are very high. Melin (2019) highlights 20 published studies reporting an efficiency for lithium often at 100%, while nickel, cobalt and manganese generally have an efficiency between 80 and 99%. A recycling efficiency for other metals such as copper, aluminum and lithium, is typically between 90 and 100%. 

 

 

The hydromet process has several benefits compared to other recovery processes. One is that it enables recovery of high yields of high purity active materialsuitable for re-introduction into fresh battery production. Another is that this process does not require high temperatures, as opposed to pyrometallurgy. 

 

Altogether, a comprehensive recycling program, combined with implementation of effective recovery programs for EV batteries, are fundamental to a successful and sustainable battery-powered industrial revolution. The benefits of this approach go beyond sustainability though, and include delivery of a vibrant new industry reflective of the need for a conscientious approach to powering society.

Securing a robust European ecosystem for Li-ion battery recycling

With the advent of electric transportation, we are rapidly moving towards a future dependent on Li-ion batteries. A responsible and modern approach to this industrial revolution must involve establishing a sustainable model for Li-ion battery manufacturing. However, that approach cannot end with manufacturing. Instead, it must extend to incorporate battery recycling as a fundamental aspect of a sustainable electric vehicle (EV) industry.

 

Batteries are, after all, systems which simultaneously require considerable amounts of energy to produce and valuable natural resources – points which underscore the importance of adopting an environmentally sound approach to their manufacture and end-of-life handling.

 

Northvolt is pioneering a green battery – a concept that begins with a blueprint for sustainable Li-ion battery manufacture, but extends into a fully built-out, robust ecosystem for recovery and recycling of batteries.

 

Use of the term ‘ecosystem’ is appropriate because of the complex, multi-layered nature that this new industry will assume.

 

There is, for instance, the requirement for interaction and collaboration between varied actors including consumers, automobile industries and battery manufacturers. There are a variety of technologies involved as well – several of which remain under development. Equally, recycling activities will have to be coordinated across widely distributed geographic regions, over timespans involving many years given the anticipated lifespans of batteries.

 

Of course there are already solutions available to support the recycling of Li-ion batteries. And despite misconception surrounding the issue, most Li-ion batteries used today are indeed recovered and recycled. Some 97,000 tonnes of Li-ion batteries were recycled last year alone – mostly in China and South Korea.

 

While this is encouraging, it does not mean that Europe is sufficiently prepared for handling recycling of Li-ion batteries through the forthcoming decades. The emergence of huge volumes of Li-ion batteries onto global markets to power EVs changes the dynamics of battery recycling substantially.

 

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Electric Vehicle Outlook 2019 suggests that by 2040, 57% of all passenger vehicle sales, and over 30% of the global passenger vehicle fleet, will be electric. Aside from a sheer increase in recycling capacity which will be required, new challenges stem from the introduction of novel EV battery systems which are quite different in form and chemistry compared to those batteries found in portables.

 

Today, the vast majority of recycled batteries come from portable electronics which are recycled as electronic waste from consumer goods including used laptops and mobile phones. Accessing the batteries within these products is relatively straight-forward from a recycling perspective and their recovery from consumers benefits from existing national-level electronic waste disposal schemes.

 

The situation is quite different with EV battery packs, which are much larger, more complex in design and build, and feature Li-ion cells based around new chemistries. Moreover, Europe simply has not yet implemented comprehensive recovery schemes of the type which will facilitate effective European recycling.

 

So what consequences do these new dynamics carry for recycling?

 

To begin with, we need to establish smart, efficient and safe ways to recover batteries once they reach the end of their life. EV owners cannot simply remove their battery pack and place it into an electronic waste collection point in their local community. The issue of recovery likely requires digital tools to identify and locate batteries when they reach end-of-life, as well as practical solutions for collection and storage of batteries prior to recycling, and finally transport to recycling stations.

 

Once battery packs are recovered, we need technologies to support early steps of recycling which involve discharging batteries and stripping packs down to cell level – something involving removal of external housing which encases the cells. Awareness of these kinds of challenges is important and means we can already begin to think about recyclability of battery packs as we design them.

 

As for the cells themselves, while current recycling technologies do exist – featuring effective hydrometallurgical treatments – these must be refined to ensure that they are optimized for recovery of materials found in modern EV battery cell chemistries, in particular those elements found in so-called active material of cells, including cobalt, nickel, and manganese.

 

 

Considered with this perspective there are clear logistical challenges to recycling of Li-ion batteries in the future. That industry should aim for this whole ecosystem to run efficiently, with the lowest environmental footprint possible, and that there are European regulations governing the transport of Li-ion batteries adds further complexity to the matter.

 

While technology has a large role to play, so does national and international policy. A recent European Commission evaluation of the European Battery Directive, which was established in 2006 as EU legislation to govern the batteries as waste, acknowledges that regulations must be refined to catch up and prepare for the future that is rapidly approaching, stating: “While key circular economy goals are reflected in the directive, such as addressing the supply of materials and recycling, there is still significant untapped potential.”

 

Ultimately, legislation can facilitate recovery, transport and recycling of batteries within Europe, or hinder it.

 

That recycling to recover materials directly supports sustainable practices of battery manufacturers, and that there already exist legal responsibilities of battery manufacturers with respect to duty of care over end-of-life batteries, it is clear that recycling and manufacturing go hand-in-hand.

 

It is encouraging to note therefore that accelerating European recycling capacity is emphasized by the European Battery Alliance (EBA) – an initiative to which Northvolt belongs, established by the European Commission to advance a “comprehensive set of concrete measures to develop an innovative, sustainable and competitive battery ecosystem in Europe.”

 

In relation to recycling, the EBA’s measures highlight the importance of “access [to] secondary raw materials by recycling in a circular economy of batteries.”

 

Top-down support for establishing recycling of Li-ion batteries of this sort will prove vital to the endeavor ahead – just as supportive policy for deployment of renewable energy is proving today. At the same time, however, there is a role to be played by many other stakeholders, private industry actors of energy and automobile sectors and battery manufacturers such as Northvolt.

 

 

Northvolt’s advance of a green battery is tightly tied to developing solutions in response to all of the challenges of recycling. Recycling capacity will yield recovery of materials which will be fed back into the Northvolt’s cell manufacturing loop or otherwise be directed towards other industrial needs. Success will mean a reduced environmental footprint for the EV revolution, a new vibrant industry for Europe and ensure that the pitfalls of the past, where resources have been taken for granted, are avoided.

 

It’s an exciting future. One which can only be secured through a blend of technologies, fresh-thinking and collaboration across industries and effective legislation.

A portfolio of green battery solutions

One technology, endless applications

 

Across global industries and society are hints of a dramatic shift in the way that we generate and consume energy.

 

Fossil fuel-based energy systems are destined for obsolescence. Electrification is set to transform our world away from pollution and the environmental burden of carbon fuels. Sustainability is increasingly a fundamental of annual corporate policies.

 

The future is brighter for these shifts. But with the emergence of clean renewable energy has arrived a need to innovate new solutions for electricity storage and use.

 

“Just like the internet transformed how we work, socialize and interact, moving beyond the internal combustion engine (ICE) to a world of electric sustainable power generation and consumption is a profound change for citizens and companies alike,” says Northvolt’s Chief Business Development Officer, Martin Anderlind.

 

“But old habits die slowly. Despite global warming and its threat to mankind, the only way to consistently and quickly make people change habits is offering a better alternative at a lower cost. Sustainable wind and solar energy and electric cars are doing just that. Today, the only missing piece of the puzzle is a cheap and efficient way to store and retrieve this energy.”

 

“This is where batteries come in, and with the enormous amounts needed for these two huge industries alone, as volumes go up, costs will go down and all other use-cases will – like ships at high tide – be carried along as well.”

 

For this, we need to think differently. To assure success, application of cutting-edge cell design and battery systems development must be met with a responsiveness to both industrial customers’ needs and the priorities that define our age.

 

“Energy systems aren’t transformed very often,” says Martin. “And with most of this massive transformation ahead of us, we need to think about not only how we can get from here to there in the fastest and cheapest way, but also how to do it in a smart, efficient, sustainable and socially ethical way.”

 

Northvolt arrived onto the industrial scene with all this in mind, and a fresh business model for battery manufacturing and commitment to sustainability.

 

Key to that model was adoption of a dual role as both cell manufacturer and battery systems developer. With this comes a unique position to leverage control over the complete development process of battery products.

 

Working in this way has led to an initial product portfolio from Northvolt – a selection of lithium-ion battery systems built to capitalize on the strengths of the technology tuned to customers’ unique needs.

 

“Twenty years from now we will look back and wonder why it didn’t happen much sooner.”

 

Battery buildings blocks

The landscape of products powered by batteries is vast and diverse, reaching far beyond electric vehicles – a situation prompting Northvolt to developing two kinds of battery solutions: standardized and custom.

 

Based on either cylindric or prismatic cells, Northvolt’s standardized battery products are built to varying scales as solutions that like building blocks can be assembled and integrated into third-party products or simply stand-alone as plug-and-play solutions.

 

Custom battery products, on the other hand, are built by Northvolt to specification of third-parties for integration into their own applications, such as construction equipment, ships and trains. Here too, customers will have the option to choose between cylindrical or prismatic cell formats as the most fundamental building blocks.

From cars to trucks to trains and tools

Supplying the European automobile industry with high-performance, green batteries has been a key motivator for Northvolt since its earliest days.

 

Asked what it is that’s going to make a real difference here, Martin, says: “Electrification of the auto industry really comes down to battery cell chemistry.”

 

“It is the heart of the electric vehicle in the same way as the combustion engine has defined vehicles for the past hundred years. Given the importance of cells, we are working closely with partners in the industry to tailor battery cells to suit exactly the kind of vehicle and customer experience desired.”

 

“This means optimizing solutions for specific vehicles, applications or market segments. For instance, heavy trucks or commercial vehicles may prioritize power or cycle life‚ whereas a regular passenger vehicle may value cost per kWh or fast charging .”

 

“To achieve this we invite our customers early and deeply into the design process. Doing this enables us to truly understand different market segment needs and provide optimized solutions,” says Martin, highlighting Northvolt’s partnership with Scania.

 

 

Battery cell development for the automotive industry will be undertaken at Northvolt Labs in Västerås, which serves as a platform for product research and industrialization of the custom cells Northvolt has already contracted to supply.

 

With its 350 MWh/year manufacturing line, Northvolt Labs will be capable of mimicking the full-scale manufacturing processes (albeit with less automation) planned for the Northvolt Ett gigafactory in Skellefteå.

 

A close bond between Northvolt and the vehicle industry is clear in the on-going work with world-leading mining giant, Epiroc, where we are delivering heavy-duty battery systems to power a pioneering fleet of underground mining vehicles. Reflecting versatility of these battery packs, the same systems used here (Badass Voltpacks) are slated to go into the world’s largest battery-powered vehicle on rails – a train being develop by Railcare.

 

Li-ion batteries will transform other sectors too.

 

“Power tools, home appliances, gardening equipment – shifting most of these over to batteries, going cordless, leads to great improvements and flexibility in many more areas than today.”

 

“Work will be safer – people and machinery can get entangled in cords and can injure themselves and others. More flexible and productive – freeing ourselves from a dependence on outlets nearby means that we can also look forward to increased flexibility, productivity and in many places lower cost. As long as you’re charged, you can work almost anywhere.”

 

“Today we generally accept that gas-powered machines are noisy and polluting. This has a big impact as this work can’t be performed in populated areas in early mornings or late evenings, or without great disturbance and associated health risks. But this changes with batteries. With silent, battery-driven machines, operators can increase uptime and flexibility and our streets will become quieter, cleaner, safer and much more pleasant.”

 

 

Supporting renewable energy

Considering the massive accumulated volume of cells required by all these different markets, there is every reason to embrace standardized products where it makes sense. Standardized products, while not suited to all circumstances, are perfectly fit for many.

 

Standardization means more common components. And more common manufacturing processes. Altogether, it means more efficient production and lowered costs of energy storage.

 

One market sector where Northvolt will be delivering standardized battery solutions is the electricity grid, where they will be used to support renewable energy generation and use.

 

“Grid energy storage perform a number of different services, in order to keep our grids operating and in balance,” explains Martin.

 

“To accommodate this, Northvolt offers a family of grid products that can serve multiple services and revenues streams, while supporting the ongoing transition more renewable solar and wind energy generation, handling increased power peaks or simply back-up crucial industrial loads.”

 

Just as different vehicles carry different requirements, so do stationary energy storage systems.

 

“Our lineup of standard products range from modular building blocks such as the High Voltblock to packs, racks and complete solutions such as the Life Voltrack – built to fit specific grid requirements and which can be scaled to meet various project needs.”

 

Smart, collaborative design

Across these sectors, Northvolt’s control of each step of the manufacturing process of battery cells and products means expert teams working in-house on everything from initial concept and design, through prototyping, validation, certification and into serial production.

 

As Martin says: “With deep vertical integration from raw material preparation and active material, to cell development and system design, Northvolt has unique competences and advantage in designing, developing and manufacturing solutions to fit specific application needs. That we are also working in close collaboration with customers to design and refine products for their different and unique end-uses simply adds further depth to an already holistic strategy.”

 

European backing for Northvolt’s battery gigafactory in Sweden

  • In-principle approval of the European Investment Bank to support Northvolts gigafactory for lithium-ion battery cells in Skellefteå, Sweden
  • Pending finalization of due diligence and negotiations, the EIB’s financing commitment is foreseen to be EUR 350 million

 

The European Investment Bank has given its in-principle agreement to support the financing of Europe’s first home-grown gigafactory for lithium-ion battery cells, Northvolt Ett, in Sweden. Upon conclusion of a loan agreement, the financing would be supported by the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), the main pillar of the Investment Plan for Europe.

 

The gigafactory will be established in Skellefteå in northern Sweden – a region home to a prominent raw material and mining cluster which has a long history of process manufacturing and recycling. Noting the region’s clean power base, building the factory in northern Sweden will enable Northvolt to utilize 100% renewable energy within its production processes.

 

EIB Vice-President Andrew McDowell noted: “The development of a competitive and green battery value chain within Europe can not only cut greenhouse gas emissions by decarbonizing power generation and transport, but can also help protect millions of well paid jobs in European industries in the face of increasing global competition. The EUR 350 million loan to Northvolt approved in-principle today by our Board of Directors is the largest ever direct EIB financing approval for battery technology, and we look forward to working with Northvolt over the coming months to finalize contracts.”

 

Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission Vice-President for the Energy Union, said: “The EIB and the Commission are strategic partners under the EU Battery Alliance. I welcome the significant support proposed by the EIB to Northvolt gigafactory as a stepping-stone towards building a competitive, sustainable and innovative value chain, with battery cells manufactured at scale, here, in Europe. Our two institutions are working closely with the industry and key Member States to put the EU on a firm path towards global leadership in this rapidly expanding sector.”

 

Northvolt Ett will serve as Northvolt’s primary production site, hosting active material preparation, cell assembly, recycling and auxiliaries. The construction of the first quarter of the factory will be completed in 2020. Ramping up to full capacity, Northvolt Ett will produce 32 GWh of battery capacity per year.

 

“This EIB in principle approval is a key moment in the process of finalizing our capital raise to support the establishment of Northvolt Ett. Today, we are one step closer to our goal of building the greenest batteries in the world and enabling the European transition to a decarbonized future,” said Peter Carlsson, co-founder and CEO of Northvolt.

 

The capital raise, in which this EIB loan would be included, will finance the establishment of the first 16 GWh of battery capacity production. The batteries from Northvolt Ett are targeted for use in automotive, grid storage, and industrial and portable applications.

 

“Today’s decision by the EIB is very gratifying and a big step towards a large-scale battery production in the EU and a fossil free welfare society. The decision shows that there are prerequisites in Sweden for sustainable battery production, it is important for Sweden and the rest of the EU to produce battery materials and battery cells, based on green, Swedish electricity,” said Ibrahim Baylan, Swedish Minister for Business, Industry and Innovation.

 

Background Information

The European Investment Bank (EIB) is the long-term lending institution of the European Union, owned by its Member States. It makes long-term finance available for sound investment in order to contribute towards EU policy goals. In 2018 alone, the Bank made available a record EUR 1.37 billion in loans for Swedish projects in various sectors, including research & development, industry, nearly-zero-energy-buildings and telecommunications.

 

The EIB is the European Union’s bank; the only bank owned by and representing the interests of the European Union Member States. It works closely with other EU institutions to implement EU policy and is the world’s largest multilateral borrower and lender. The EIB provides finance and expertise for sustainable investment projects that contribute to EU policy objectives. More than 90% of its activity is in Europe.

 

Northvolt was founded in 2016 with the mission to build the world’s greenest battery cell, with a minimal carbon footprint and the highest ambitions for recycling, to enable the European transition to renewable energy. Northvolt’s team of experts is building the next generation battery cell factory focused on process innovation, scale and vertical integration. Once completed, it will be one of Europe’s largest battery cell factories and produce 32 GWh worth of capacity annually.

 

The Investment Plan for Europe, known as the Juncker Plan, is one of the European Commission’s top priorities. It focuses on boosting investment to generate jobs and growth by making smarter use of new and existing financial resources, removing obstacles to investment, and providing visibility and technical assistance to investment projects.

 

The European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) is the main pillar of the Juncker Plan and provides first loss guarantees, enabling the EIB to invest in more projects that often come with greater risks. EFSI has already yielded tangible results. The projects and agreements approved for financing under EFSI are expected to mobilise almost EUR 393 billion in investments and support 945.000 SMEs in the 28 Member States. More information on the results of the Investment Plan for Europe is available here.