Nitin Gupta is the Co-founder & CEO at Attero Recycling Pvt Ltd is a notable player in electronic asset management with expertise in recycling solutions for electronics. In a conversation with Mobility Outlook, he delves into the intricacies of lithium and sheds light on its role in the global energy transition. In this free-wheeling interview, he discusses a range of topics. Excerpts:
What is the role of lithium in the energy transition?
Lithium-ion batteries, with their high energy density and fast-charging capabilities, play a crucial role in storing and distributing green energy. Nearly 50% of an electric vehicle's cost is attributed to its battery. Out of this, 45% is the cost of raw materials including cobalt, lithium, graphite and manganese.
The raw materials come from mining. They are then refined to battery-grade materials. These are further put into anode and cathode materials before going into cell manufacturing. The fundamental unit, the cell, is made by companies such as LG Energy Solutions, SK Innovation, CATL, Panasonic, Northvolt, Tesla and a few more in factories called Giga factories where the capacity is measured in terms of energy produced. In a cell, the anode is 99% graphite and 1% silica. There is an anode separator made of aluminium. Then there is a liquid electrolyte LiPF6,. Post which, there is a thin foil of copper as the cathode separator. Lastly, there is cathode made of cobalt, lithium and nickel depending on the battery chemistry. So, making these cells is a technologically challenging task requiring a specific infrastructure. For every Giga factory, the minimum capacity required is at least one GigaWatt hour and the minimum investment required is $ 0.5 billion.
What are the global Initiatives to address supply chain risks?
Take cobalt as a case in point. Almost 70% of it is mined in the Congo region, which is plagued with child labour and the like. At the current known sources and utilisation rates, the world will run out of cobalt by 2030. Similarly, 60% of the world’s lithium gets mined in the Bolivia-Argentina region, which is again one of the world’s driest regions. The social and ecological impact of this process is huge in terms of water usage. To extract one tonne of lithium carbonate using the traditional mining processes requires more than 500,000 gallons of water. On top of this, about 90% of the world’s battery-grade lithium carbonate/hydroxide and graphite and 80% of the cobalt comes from China. All of this means there are significant supply-chain and ESG risks involved with mining.
Now every country is trying to become self-sufficient in critical minerals and have started de-incentivising imports from China. Countries like the U.S. and EU are taking steps to ensure self-sufficiency in critical minerals. Initiatives such as the Inflation Reduction Act and EU's subsidy programmes aim to promote domestication of critical minerals’ supply chains, reducing dependence on China. These efforts are aligned with the goal of mitigating supply security and geopolitical risks.
Can India meet the challenges of lithium-ion battery manufacturing?
The government has indeed come out with a Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) policy. The country should have a 50 Giga watt hour capacity developed very soon to encourage domestic production. Under this policy, 35 Gigawatt hour has already been awarded to a few companies. The first of these Giga factories should be up in about a years’ time.
There are various uses of lithium, battery cells being the biggest use case. It is used in the speciality chemicals industry. A tiny amount is used in the pharmaceutical industry (in psychotropic drugs). All of this is either imported or is supplied by Attero by recycling lithium ion batteries. The needs as of now are small and the reserves found are too huge. This will change as domestic Giga factories start production.
What is the significance of recycling lithium-ion batteries?
Attero, with cutting-edge recycling processes, extracts metals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and more from end-of-life batteries. Attero has over 45 global patents when it comes to recycling lithium, with all the recycling technology developed in India. The company takes back all kinds of End of Final Life (EOLf) lithium ion batteries and even the mining intermediate product and converts them into battery-grade lithium carbonate. These batteries come from consumer electronics, energy storage system (ESS) batteries such as telecom towers and solar storage and also EV recall batteries. Hyundai Kona had a few recalls for battery packs, which were all recycled by Attero. Today, globally around one million tonnes of end-of-life lithium ion batteries are ready for recycling and this number is growing by 25% per year at the minimum. About 70% of the source is manufacturing waste (from Giga factories, where 10-25% is manufacturing waste per factory)) and 30% from non-manufacturing waste (including EOLf consumer electronics batteries, EOLf ESS batteries, recall EV batteries, EOLf EV batteries). Sourcing is not a problem at all. Attero already has a lot of signed contracts with large global OEMs for recycling their manufacturing waste.
The efficiency of over 98% in this recycling process contributes to reducing the environmental footprint. The purity after recycling is as good as when it comes from mining operations. For example, the cobalt we recycle is battery-grade. So is the lithium-carbonate copper is electronic quality and the aluminium 99.5% pure. A total investment of $ 50 million has been poured into the company. Out of which, about $ 5 million has gone into R&D activities.
What are the safety and environmental measures in battery recycling?
Attero's recycling plant adheres to the highest safety standards globally. The zero-emission and zero-waste water facility recycles every drop of water internally. With upcoming plants in the U.S. and Europe, Attero aims to replicate its commitment to safety and sustainability on a global scale. This will take the total capacity for battery recycling to 300,000 tonnes per annum. The spread will be 35% in Poland & Europe, 35% in the U.S. (possibly in Alabama, location yet to be finalised) and 30% in Asia, largely in India. So, the brand has to adhere to strict environmental regulations across the globe.