Japanese company Sumitomo Metal Mining is preparing to start recycling used traction batteries for electric vehicles using its own patented technology. They make it possible to output separately cobalt, lithium and other materials used in batteries.
Cobalt and lithium are used in the cathodes of lithium-ion batteries, the most common batteries in modern electric vehicles. Demand for these materials is expected to continue to grow and Sumitomo Metal will be able to increase their domestic supply to Japan, which will benefit local battery manufacturers. Using its expertise in copper purification, the company has developed a method for recovering lithium, nickel and cobalt from used batteries. The developer positions the technology as the first of its kind.
Sumitomo Metal plans to open a processing plant in Japan by 2023. It will be able to recycle 7,000 tons of crushed batteries a year – enough to produce 200 tons of cobalt, which can be used in 20,000 electric vehicles. Unlike competitors’ solutions, Sumitomo Metal obtains materials comparable in quality to fossil fuels at an industrial scale and relatively low cost. The technology will remain competitive even if the price of fossil lithium falls to $ 5-6 per kg, or if the prices of nickel and cobalt fall significantly.
The demand for electric vehicles has driven the prices of these materials soaring, and sourcing is becoming an increasingly difficult task for businesses around the world. Lithium has almost doubled in price – to almost $ 30 per kg. Many of these materials come with logistical and reputational risks: about 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sometimes using child labor, and 60% of its processing is in China. Some automakers are taking matters into their own hands to minimize risk. Tesla obtained the rights to mine lithium in Nevada last year. The need to recycle old batteries is reflected in legislative initiatives: recently, the European Union proposed to adopt a norm according to which, by 2030, electric vehicle batteries must contain at least 12% recycled cobalt and 4% recycled lithium and nickel.
Sumitomo Metal plans to start with small amounts of recycled batteries, using the materials extracted from them for its own cathode production. The company plans to invest in the industry now to gain an edge over the competition when battery recycling becomes more common.