Apr 9, 2018 Recycling blog

Lifestyle metals and recycling

Marke Kallio
Marke Kallio
Research Manager, Aggregates R&D
We need raw materials to maintain our modern way of living. Securing reliable and unhindered access to certain key raw materials is a growing concern within the EU and across the globe. To address this challenge, the European Commission has created a list of critical raw materials (CRMs).
Lithium-ion batteries are widely used in everyday life, in electric cars, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and many other devices we cannot live without anymore.

The new list was published in 2017 and comprises 27 materials that are critical for the EU because the risk of supply shortages – and their impact on the economy – are higher than those of most other raw materials. The list should help incentivize the European production of critical raw materials through enhancing recycling activities, and when necessary, facilitate the launch of new mining activities.

A feature common to all CRMs is that they are mainly non-energy-related raw materials and have a strong link to all industries across all supply chain stages. Examples of CRMs are metals used in high-tech industries, like rare earth elements/metals (REEs) such as tungsten or niobium, but natural graphite, natural rubber, coking coal and phosphate rock also have substantial supply risks.

Laptops and electric cars increase the demand for lifestyle metals

A new group of materials, the “lifestyle metals,” include lithium, indium, graphite, REES and cobalt. Lithium-ion batteries are widely used in everyday life, in electric cars, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and many other devices we cannot live without anymore. Currently, lithium is not considered a critical raw material, but another crucial raw material for battery production is cobalt, which is a CRM. It is not widely known that Li-ion batteries can contain as much cobalt as lithium.

Hybrid and electric vehicles are here to stay, and many traditional automotive companies have announced that they are expanding into the electric vehicle (EV) business in the coming years. At EU level, the Commission believes that the lack of a European battery industry may hinder this change from traditional vehicles to EVs.

Currently, there are about 60 mining projects globally targeting lithium production. There are lithium deposits in Australia, Argentina, and Scandinavia. It is not easy to forecast how the lithium demand will increase in future: is the supply secure or will there be supply limitations? In some scenarios, there will be a significant shortage of lithium, and in some scenarios even oversupply, in the coming years.  

Cobalt was the first cathode material for commercial Li-Ion batteries, but there are now attempts to partly replace cobalt with other metal oxides. Cobalt is a nickel and copper base metal by-product, and cobalt supply is tied to the global business cycle and pricing of the base metals. More than 40 percent of global cobalt production is already used in the battery industry, but it is also needed in many other fields, too: in superalloys, magnets, catalysts, etc. Recycling batteries will not solve the cobalt supply problem, as it is not easy to produce battery-grade cobalt from recycled materials.

Ramping up recycling and substitution of critical raw materials

Material scarcity can be tackled in various ways. You can increase material and production efficiency through process improvements, and take actions to improve recycling. For example, recycling of cobalt is rapidly increasing. Commodity research group CRU expects 11,600 tonnes of cobalt to come from recycling in 2021 and 24,900 tonnes by 2026, accounting for 9.7 percent and 17.9 percent of the total market supply, respectively.

The recycling industry is now ramping up to collect used Li-ion, Li-polymer and NiMH batteries to recover the valuable metals. They will be converted to active cathode materials for production of new batteries. In the currently used high-energy-density batteries cobalt is needed and demand for it has been increasing, which has been promoting recycling.

Long-term solutions will also require identification and substitution of critical materials. Substitution typically needs extensive research, development and updating of processes, and it takes time to implement. Globally, there is an impressive amount of research going on to develop battery chemistries with less cobalt but with similar energy density. In future, there will be other competitive chemistries available, now that attempts are being made to cut the amount of cobalt and increase nickel. Long-term solutions can also mean increasing or starting up new mining projects, which itself depends on various factors and is not always possible because of ore depletion, high energy costs, environmental restrictions and the like.

When life-style metals are concerned, currently the biggest problem for efficient recycling is the inefficient collection of waste electrical and electronic equipment, which is the main source of them. This is also the main obstacle to relieving the supply risk of critical metals.

What can Metso do to help tackle material scarcity challenges?

Metso’s knowledge extends from the extraction of raw materials to the recycling of metals. We have been involved in designing pioneering minerals processing systems and equipment for some 150 years already. Today, we offer a full scope of raw material and energy-efficient comminution solutions for mines, as well as a comprehensive array of life cycle services helping to optimize processes and get the best yield from the ore being processed. Currently, at Metso R&D we are also working on a project related to material substitution as part of our constant efforts to improve the energy efficiency and reliability of our processes.

On the recycling side, our recycling solutions cater to the needs of scrapyards, automotive manufacturers, and other household or industrial waste processing facilities. Our offering includes a wide range of efficient solutions for shearing, baling, briquetting, shredding and pre-shredding of virtually every type of scrap. Especially Metso’s small metal shredders are already being successfully used in various European waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) recycling plants, securing reliably specific fragmentation requirements.  

Our continuing efforts focus on both ends of the circular system – both through increasing the efficiency of extraction of raw materials, with an eye towards environmental stewardship, and through improving the recovery and reuse of materials used in end-of-life consumer and industrial products. Both avenues are critical to the continued production of these life-style metals, which are so important to our society and way of life.