Battery minerals developer Lithium Australia (ASX: LIT) has found a way to recover lithium from spent lithium-ion batteries, offering a sustainable solution to the major recycling challenge of batteries being disposed in landfill.
The company today announced it has successfully produced refined lithium phosphate (LP) using spent lithium-ion batteries as a feedstock and is now using the recycled LP to produce new lithium-ferro-phosphate (LFP) cathode powder.
This LFP powder will then be used to make coin cells to test performance of “re-birthed” cathode materials.
In addition, the process recovered other battery metals including nickel and cobalt in a concentrate form that would make them suitable for commercial refining.
According to Lithium Australia managing director Adrian Griffin, few recycling operations around the world can currently recover lithium from lithium-ion batteries, meaning the company’s process has the potential to not only “improve the sustainability” of lithium-ion batteries but also “ease future supply constraints that may prove problematic to the industry”.
Recycling needed to meet long-term demand
Speaking with Small Caps, Mr Griffin said current mining plus planned projects and expansions will not meet long-term consumption needs and alternative sources of lithium “may prove more attractive as genuine supply shortages put pressure on conventional production”.
He said by 2030, about 3.5 million tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent will be required each year for use in electric vehicles alone, yet global lithium production is currently at around 200,000tpa.
“We can’t afford to throw large quantities of lithium away for the longer term, or any of the other battery minerals for that matter, and we need to see more recycling,” Mr Griffin said.
He pointed out that only about 9% of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled on a global basis, and despite Australians considering themselves “so environmentally-conscious”, we are pushing hard to get over the 3% mark.
“We’re an incredibly wasteful society and what we’ve got to do is get more of that material back into the supply chain, and that of course will alleviate the requirements for new material,” Mr Griffin said.
To fill this forecasted supply shortage, Lithium Australia has been utilising its battery recycling and proprietary processing technologies to develop ways to recycle lithium chemicals from waste materials such as spent lithium-ion batteries, lithium mine tailings and other lithium minerals including lepidolite and petalite.
Recovering metal powder from batteries
In line with its battery recycling strategy, Lithium Australia recently boosted its stake in Envirostream Australia, which operates the country’s only current facilities for shredding lithium-ion batteries.
The company currently holds a 14.29% stake in Envirostream but is expecting to increase its interest under an existing agreement to 18.91%.
In today’s update, Lithium Australia said Envirostream has supplied the company with a metal powder that is one of the products generated during its shredding process.
This powder, known as mixed metal dust (MMD), is derived largely from the battery electrodes.
Using its proprietary LP precipitation and refining technology, Lithium Australia successfully recovered lithium from the MMD in the form of LP, which was subsequently refined for use as a precursor in the production of LFP cathode powder.
Mr Griffin said this ability to use LP in the direct generation of LFP is a “significant technical achievement, one that reduces the number of process steps required to manufacture the cathode powder.”
“That’s great news, because LFP is the perfect battery configuration for energy-storage systems suitable for the harsh Australian environment,” he added.
Lithium Australia developed its technology in collaboration with Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and this refined LP is the first batch to originate from recycled battery material.
It will be converted to LFP at Lithium Australia’s wholly-owned VSPC cathode powder pilot plant in Brisbane, Queensland.
The LFP will then be used to make coin cells for performance testing of the cathode materials.