The Energy Transition is A Tall Order Without Recycled Materials

The energy transition is a global effort to shift from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy, such as solar, wind, hydrogen, and electric vehicles. The transition will require a large amount of minerals and metals essential for the production and operation of various technologies across disciplines.

However, mining and processing these minerals and metals can pose significant environmental and social adversities, such as greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, land degradation, toxic waste generation, human rights crises, and geopolitical risks. The charge toward clean energy thus demands innovators to circumvent, sidestep, and prevent these pitfalls that have plagued fossil fuels as well.

Battery recyclingBattery recycling

Between 2022 and 2050, the energy transition is estimated to require the production of 6.5 billion tonnes of end-use materials, predominantly steel, copper, and aluminum along with smaller quantities of critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, graphite, or rare earth, according to the Energy Transitions Commission. This cumulative energy transition material extraction compares with the over 8 billion tonnes of coal currently extracted annually, but unlike coal, these materials are recyclable with significant efficiencies.

Transition materials mining and emissions

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the total mineral demand from clean energy technologies will double in the Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS) and quadruple in the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) by 2040. The STEPS reflects the impact of existing policy frameworks and announced targets, while the SDS outlines a pathway to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and other sustainable development objectives.

The IEA identifies six critical minerals that are particularly important for the energy transition: copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, rare earth elements (REEs), and graphite. These minerals are used in various applications, such as electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines, solar panels, electrolyzers, and fuel cells. The mining requirements for these critical minerals depend on several factors, such as the availability and quality of the resources, the extraction and processing methods, the technology development and deployment trends, and the recycling and reuse rates.

In the same report, the IEA also estimates that the annual supply of these minerals will need to increase by 4-13 times by 2040 in the STEPS and by 6-20 times in the SDS, compared to 2020 levels. This implies a significant expansion of the mining sector, which will require large investments, infrastructure development, skilled labor, and environmental and social safeguards.

The total emissions from the mineral supply chain for clean energy technologies are projected to increase from 60 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2020 to 120 million tonnes in the STEPS and 140 million tonnes in the SDS by 2040. However, these emissions are dwarfed by the emissions avoided by using these technologies instead of fossil fuels and will continue to further decline with the proliferation of battery recycling.

To minimize the environmental and social impacts of mining and processing these critical minerals, improving the efficiency and sustainability of mineral production, recycling, and material circularity are vital. Recycling is the most direct way to sustainably diversify the supply of energy transition materials and ensure responsible & transparent mineral supply chains.

Recycling & secondary materials ecosystem

A proof-of-concept of the circularity of energy transition materials over fossil fuels exists in the life of an average Electric Vehicle battery. Following is a journey from the mine to market towards recycling to market.

1. Raw material mining & refining

Energy transition materials and battery raw materials are first mined across the world, and refined for use in manufacturing. This initial step is the most carbon-intensive, water-intensive, and polluting, as well as dangerous to informal miners. Yet for all the effort, these 'primary ecosystem' materials also come with a significant amount of production scrap, which may be as high as 40%.

2. Cell production and battery manufacturing

The refined battery metals and metal salts are engineered into battery cells of various battery chemistries, and then these cell modules are packaged into batteries, equipped with Battery Management Systems (BMS) software and hardware. Lithium-ion battery technology allows for significantly versatile configurations and form factors, able to power everything from phones to EVs and solar energy storage.

3. First life in an electric vehicle

The batteries then power an Electric Vehicle for thousands of charge cycles, which usually run through over 3 to 5 years, after which the total capacity of the battery depletes by around 30%, warranting replacement or refurbishment.

4. Collection & testing

Upon end-of-first-life, the EV batteries are collected, safely transported, and tested in-depth for the availability of cells with healthy 'Remaining Useful Life'. These cells are separated, and the cells that have reached their end-of-life are sent for recycling. Testing and Second Life or Recycling marks the moment these batteries enter the secondary materials ecosystem.

5. Second life

EV battery cells that are abundant in Remaining Useful Life become eligible for a range of stationary Energy Storage System (ESS) applications and are reassembled to produce EV charging stations, ESS for homes, businesses, the grid, and more.

6. Recycling or urban mining

Finally, second-life batteries upon reaching end-of-life join the recycling stream, along with production scrap and cells that had reached end-of-life earlier. These cells are mechanically shredded and recycled via various hydrometallurgical, mechanical, or pyrometallurgical processes. Through this recycling process, the raw materials regenerated may possess an average purity rate of 99.5%, even higher than newly mined and refined materials, as produced by the NEETM hydrometallurgical multi-stage battery recycling technology at LOHUM.

Recycling is sustainable raw material procurement

Through high-yield low-carbon battery recycling at scale, we can build and sustain reserves of energy transition materials. These regionalized, recycled reserves are ensuring energy security for generations to come, and reducing reliance on traditional mining for raw materials, thereby reducing CO2e, water consumption, and the environmental and humanitarian impact of mining.

This reduces the risk of supply chain disruption and insulates against price volatility, securing raw material procurement from secondary sources in the global energy transition. Supply chain resilience critical to energy demands of electrification & digitization, renewables storage capacity, and grid stabilization can all be achieved via the macro effects of battery recycling.

Recycled raw materials may be more sustainable, but are they equal or better in quality and performance than virgin raw materials? Studies from the IEEE validate that they perform equally or better, owing to their higher purity. Battery recycling also enables the regionalization of energy transition material stockpiles by recovering and reusing valuable materials from end-of-life products.

By responsibly recycling batteries, we can prevent the bioaccumulation & biomagnification of harmful substances in the food chain, prevent hazardous fires or explosions from damaged battery waste, and preserve natural ecosystems.