The R&D journey behind Umicore’s unique approach to battery recycling
Umicore has developed a proprietary approach to battery recycling that is more effective, efficient, scalable, and sustainable than other techniques and processes. Pioneered in Belgium by our R&D team, this is the inside story of how we developed this market-leading solution.
As the use of electric vehicles (EVs) grows exponentially around the world, the need for solutions to recycle end-of-life EV batteries and production scrap is also rapidly accelerating.
With more than 15 years experience in battery recycling, Umicore is at the forefront of innovation efforts to create an efficient and sustainable battery recycling process.
Increasing production capacity to meet demand, Umicore is gearing up for significant expansion in battery recycling in Europe. It will incorporate proprietary metal extraction technologies, developed by Umicore’s research teams and built by its engineering teams, with the lowest environmental impact and highest yield of recovered critical raw materials and metals.
How it works - the Umicore approach
Umicore’s unique and patented process works in several stages, combining pyro and hydrometallurgy. The pyrometallurgy stage, using high-temperature smelting without any external energy, breaks down end-of-life batteries and production scraps into valuable recyclable elements and waste impurities. The valuable materials are converted into pure metal concentrates, which are then further refined in a hydrometallurgical stage (using chemicals) that separates the metals, such as cobalt, nickel, lithium and copper, into high-quality battery-grade materials. The robust and smart impurity removal achieved in the pyrometallurgical stage makes the hydrometallurgical stage simpler and very effective. This results in high-quality recovered materials that can be used to produce new cathode active battery materials, the key technology component in batteries, so closing the loop in the value chain.
Our R&D teams played a key role in developing this ground-breaking process, as Bart Verrecht, Senior Program Manager for R&D in Battery Recycling, explains: ‘’Our R&D teams were very early into the game in battery recycling, starting in the mid-2000s and writing the first patents around 2007. Everything we’ve done in R&D since then prepared the way for the upscaling of our proprietary technology today.’’
The approach is 20-30% more cost-efficient than other battery recycling methods, and results in high recovery yields of more than 95% for nickel, copper and cobalt, and, in the future, 80% for lithium. As the high-temperature processing stage uses the energy present in the input materials, like graphite, electrolyte and plastics, it also has the lowest carbon footprint compared to competing processes, such as mechanical shredding (see this story for more technical information, including CO2 comparison).
“These benefits really set Umicore apart from the competition. We’re now a front-runner in battery recycling with our smart pyro-hydrometallurgical process and other innovations protected by over 20 patents.’’
Bart Verrecht, Senior Program Manager for R&D in Battery Recycling
Adapting for EV batteries
A key achievement by the R&D team was to adapt Umicore’s proprietary approach from smaller to larger battery types. Previously, most of the batteries were from portable devices, such as power tools and e-bikes. With the shift to electric mobility, EV batteries are much larger and heavier, and have a different chemistry, with less cobalt, and more nickel and manganese. The Umicore battery smelter in Hoboken, Belgium, can handle these larger volumes, which allows us to learn about the morphology, get a good understanding of the technical implications, and validate the process for use at a larger scale. The battery smelter can handle 7,000 tonnes of EV batteries per year with the updated process. It’s a unique asset, essential to supporting our development of Europe’s largest battery recycling facility later this decade.
To achieve this successful scale-up, Umicore’s R&D teams work in specific competency areas, such as pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, as well as other areas such as pre-treatment, smelting and reduction, and solvent extraction. The teams also collaborate with other colleagues, for example in business development and commercial, who provide essential market information that the R&D team can use to guide its process development. Coordinating the different teams and enabling them to work together is a key part of our battery recycling programme.
Three years of rapid progress, and counting…
Looking back, Umicore’s R&D teams have made significant gains in upscaling its unique pyro and hydrometallurgical approach. No company can make such progress alone. Central to the teams’ success has been ‘ecosystem thinking’ or ‘open innovation’, which involves collaborating with many different stakeholders and specialists from external institutions like universities and research centers. Equally important have been the opportunities to rely on Umicore’s extensive internal competencies, speeding development times.
As Umicore looks ahead to opening Europe’s biggest battery recycling plant, the R&D team’s work continues on track, validating the unique Umicore battery recycling approach so it can be applied at the necessary scale. ‘’The ambitions are very large on this,’’ says Bart. “By the end of this decade, we will be able to process a significant amount of battery material in Europe. And in fact, the nickel that would be recycled would equate to an average nickel mine. From battery to battery, our circular approach is our powerful differentiator, creating sustainable value for our customers , while serving society’s fast-growing demand for clean mobility, powered by responsible and sustainable battery materials.’’