Biggest lithium miner gears up to tap a new lode: old EVs

The world’s biggest lithium miner wants to extract more of the battery metal from old cars as demand surges and aging electric vehicles are traded in.

Albemarle Corp. is making investments and partnering with automotive equipment manufacturers on the recycling effort, which it calls “critical” to its future growth.

The miner is part of a growing list of companies looking to grab a share of the market for recovered battery materials as lithium supplies show signs of tightening. Thirteen years after the Tesla Roadster made its debut, a first generation of EVs is nearing retirement, making more battery packs available. Once that happens, recycling is going to “take off,” said Christopher Perrella of Bloomberg Intelligence.

“It is very early stages, it’s something we’re investing in now,” Eric Norris, Albemarle’s head of lithium, said in an interview. “It’s a pretty comprehensive effort and a critical one for our growth going forward. We view this as a future resource that we would like to play prominently in.”

The recycling initiative is already underway at the Charlotte, North Carolina-based company, with a joint development agreement in place with a customer and the company looking at making investments with original equipment manufacturers, Norris said. Albermarle will help OEMs recycle from end-of-life batteries using its proprietary technology, he said.

The commercial activity will be in the second half of the decade, when regulatory mandates stipulate those batteries have to be recycled, Norris said.

BloombergNEF estimates 62,000 metric tons of used EV and stationary storage packs reached their end of life in 2020. This will grow to more than 4 million tons by 2035, according to BNEF.

In 2030, the world’s drivers and fleets are expected to buy almost 26 million electric vehicles a year, and junkyards will take in almost 1.7 million metric tons in scrapped batteries, BNEF said. Cumulative passenger, e-bus and commercial EV sales totaled 7.7 million at the end of 2019, according to the analysts.

Albemarle’s push may also help burnish its environmental credentials.

Recycling is viewed by environmental groups as one important way to reduce new mining projects. In the future, end-of-life EV lithium-ion batteries will be the major source for secondary metals for cobalt, lithium and nickel, according to an April report commissioned by Earthworks and published by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney.

Recycling is part of the sustainable aspect of electric vehicles, Kent Masters, Albemarle’s chief executive officer, said in the interview. At the end of life of EV batteries, “we have the skill set to help recycle that and to close the loop around EVs and lithium-ion batteries,” he said.

The recycle processing will be done on a local basis in Europe and North America, according to Masters.

Canadian battery-recycling startup Li-Cycle Corp. said on Tuesday that it was awarded a multi-year contract with Ultium Cells LLC, a joint venture between General Motors and LG Energy Solution, to recycle critical materials from scrap and manufacturing excess generated by battery cell manufacturing.

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