Batteries play an important role in the energy transformation, primarily as a key enabler of the electrification of transport. If hydrogen becomes a significant power source in transportation, batteries will be needed in hydrogen-powered vehicles as well. They are also used as energy storage, in balancing the electric grid, and to augment hydropower plants in hybrid solutions.
The European battery industry is developing at an incredible pace, and the growth of electric transport has surpassed all predictions in both scale and speed. At the same time, investments in green energy are increasing even more strongly. This means that there will be massive demand for batteries in both the transport and energy sector, and the battery industry is expected to grow significantly in Europe.
The need for more batteries puts pressure on raw material production. However, the availability of metals will not be able to keep up – for example, the production of nickel will not be sufficient to meet the demand, nor will the lithium supply. Recycling battery materials – as well as making use of production waste streams – is therefore not only a way to reduce waste but a crucial part of the future battery value chain. By recycling production waste as well as used batteries, we can create a new industry that applies the principles of circular economy while supporting European battery manufacturing.
Nearly all battery metals can be recovered and recycled
Currently, practically all metals used in batteries can be recovered and recycled. These include nickel, manganese, cobalt, and lithium. However, the recycling of other components such as graphite, the liquid electrolyte and the separator plastic between the cathode and anode surface still require further development, which is ongoing. I believe that we are not far from being able to recycle the liquid electrolytes as raw material for the chemical industry.
The metals in the active material of batteries are mainly reused as raw material in new batteries, but there are other applications for recycled battery materials as well. The metal refining industry gladly makes use of recycled metals to reduce the need to acquire virgin raw material.
Primary materials will continue to be needed too because of the high demand. Finland is in a good situation in this regard, as we have deposits of all the materials needed in today’s batteries – nickel, cobalt, manganese, lithium, and graphite. We are, in fact, unique in Europe when it comes to these natural resources. We already have a lot of industry that refines these metals, which helps in getting new battery industry investments in Finland.
We already have a strong customer base for recycled battery materials, and we are able to recycle the waste material produced by European companies in the value chain into high quality raw material. Fortum has been running a pilot battery material recycling plant in Harjavalta, Finland. The plant is already operating commercially, although the scale is small. The purpose of the pilot is to test new technologies to recycle different materials. The learnings from the pilot will be applied in the technological solutions of a new, commercial scale hydrometallurgical plant in Harjavalta, which will be operational in 2023.
In addition to the hydrometallurgical recycling process taking place in Harjavalta, we also operate a mechanical battery recycling plant in Ikaalinen, Finland, where EV batteries are dismantled and mechanically processed. The valuable black mass of the batteries is taken from Ikaalinen to Harjavalta to be hydrometallurgically processed. Fortum also operates a recycling plant in Tornio specialised in recycling metal industry waste streams that contain valuable metals used in batteries, which are recovered and recycled to support the availability of secondary raw materials in battery production.