Green lithium-ion battery recycling process secures £0.5m Innovate UK funding

The Ecosurety backed CellMine process is uniquely low-impact and uses novel ‘green’ solvents to selectively target and recover finite metals from waste lithium-ion batteries.

Livingston based Impact Solutions have successfully achieved proof-of-concept of their groundbreaking CellMine process. Using real-world samples of 'black mass' from a mixed-feedstock of battery waste ('black mass' being the finely ground mix of materials that results from the processing of waste batteries), CellMine has begun targeting and selectively recovering lithium-ion cathode materials at a purity of over 99.5%, including manganese, pictured above.

The low-toxicity, novel solvents used in the CellMine process can efficiently dissolve metals using a low energy input, due to the low process temperatures required.

This results in a low-cost, efficient process that promises to dramatically reduce the environmental impact of resource recovery for lithium-ion batteries. This is in stark contrast to existing pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgical recycling practices that are highly toxic and energy-intensive.

Dissolved cobalt in solution during the CellMine process

£0.5m funding to scale project

The initial £100k project to transform the CellMine process from academic theory to laboratory proof-of-concept was completed in only ten months, funded by the first round of the Ecosurety Exploration Fund. This success has enabled the project to secure a further £0.5m of funding from Innovate UK to continue development for an additional 18 months.

The Innovate UK funded stage of the project will enable the project to expand the research to selectively recover all target materials from black mass, including cobalt, nickel and lithium. It will also seek to optimise reuse of the solvent to reduce the operating costs and environmental impact further. Crucially, it will explore the commercial application of the process to scale it from the laboratory to a pilot plant.

Partners working with Impact Solutions on the next stage of the project include St Andrews University, a world leader in cathode research, who will test and validate the recyclate resulting from the CellMine process for use in new real-world batteries. Compliance scheme Ecosurety is also a project partner who will assist in developing supply chain and feedstock relationships.

A pressing environmental issue

The recovery of finite metals used in lithium-ion batteries is a pressing environmental issue, with a limited supply of raw materials that cause environmental destruction during their extraction.

Recycling of finite metals is also currently difficult and recycling rates are extremely low, with the Green Alliance recently reporting that globally only 1% of lithium and rare earth elements are currently recycled.

Their report points out that if we could reach recycling rates of 70% for lithium, 80% for rare earth metals and 90% for cobalt by 2050, the UK could meet virtually all the critical material needs required for electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar energy generation from secondary materials.

Gareth Morton, Discovery Manager at Ecosurety commented “From project kick-off at the beginning of 2021, CellMine very quickly proved to be an incredibly innovative project. It is successfully pioneering new scientific understanding that will improve the recovery of extremely valuable and scarce metals in batteries, whilst also reducing the environmental impact of doing so at the same time.”

“We're proud to have supported the proof-of-concept development and are thrilled to continue our involvement in the next stage that will see the project progress from the laboratory to a fully-fledged process.”

Refine and scale the technology

Simon Rathbone, Development Manager from Impact Solutions commented “The Ecosurety Exploration Fund has allowed us to develop CellMine from very early, theoretical research into a system that has proven lithium batteries can be recycled in a safe, low cost, environmentally friendly and sustainable manner. Simply put, without this critical funding we would have been unable to progress the technology to the point it is today.”

“The new funding from UK Government will allow us to further refine and scale the technology to showcase the system, leading to CellMine’s first pilot plant in the near future. We are excited about what the future holds for CellMine and we are proud that we can continue its journey with both Ecosurety and St Andrews University as project partners.”

Professor John Irvine, Head of research at JTSI Group – Energy and Materials at St Andrews University, commented “We are delighted to be working with Impact Solutions and Ecosurety on this very exciting project developing a more effective way to recover materials from spent batteries."

"Lithium-ion batteries are of critical importance to our energy future, but it is essential that we find new routes to recycle these batteries in a sustainable manner.”

Find out more about the CellMine project.

Written by Ben Luger Published 10/12/2021 Topics Ecosurety
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