Sumitomo Metal Mining has developed a new proprietary process for extracting high-grade metals from used EV batteries cheaply.
According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Sumitomo Metal’s method promises more reliable supply of cobalt, lithium and copper, bolstering Japan’s domestic supply of these materials, while benefiting the country’s EV battery makers simultaneously.
Cobalt and lithium are high-grade metals used in cathodes of EV lithium-ion batteries, and global demand for them is only expected to grow with most countries aiming for a carbon-neutral future.
According to the Nikkei, lithium has more than doubled over a year to nearly $30 per kilogram, while cobalt has risen about 80% to around $60,000 per ton.
In addition, many of these materials carry supply chain and compliance risks: About 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), some with the use of child labor, and about 60% is processed in China.
Sumitomo Metal’s new method cheaply extracts copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium from used EV batteries by crushing them, heating the resulting powder to specific temperatures, and then adjusting its oxygen levels.
The company plans to bring its one-of-a-kind recycling facility online in Japan by 2023, and it will have the capacity to process 7,000 tons of crushed batteries a year – enough to extract 200 tons of cobalt, sufficient for 20,000 EVs, out of batteries using nickel-manganese-cobalt cathodes.
According to the Nikkei, Sumitomo’s rivals like JX Nippon Mining & Metals and Umicore also are working on ways to recycle these materials. But they have struggled to keep costs down, with their focus on processes that require expensive chemicals.
In contrast, Sumitomo Metal said it is on track to extract materials comparable in quality to mined alternatives at a relatively low cost and at commercial volumes.
The company has disclosed that its method will remain competitive even if mined lithium falls to around $5 or $6 per kilogram, or if nickel and cobalt prices return to past lulls.
Image and content: Reuters/Nikkei Asian Review