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Metso as a technology company with solutions and products both for recycling of raw materials and for different type of metallurgical unit processing is well positioned to support and develop the projects rising from the rapidly increasing requirement of getting end-of-life batteries made and recycled sustainably.

Booming battery minerals market

The growing adoption of electric vehicles is driving rapidly increasing demand for rechargeable batteries and their input commodities - including lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, manganese, copper and aluminum.

Battery metals

To reach the demand level, the lithium production is expected to double from 2018 to 2022, supported by capacity expansions and new mines entering production, mainly in Chile, Australia, Argentina and Canada. The main sources of lithium globally are the brines and hard-rock deposits. Production from brines is more economical, with largest deposits being in Americas and China. Hard-rock deposits however are somewhat more challenging to process, especially on the beneficiation side, while the efficiency of the operations is key in maintaining sustainable production costs. The hard-rock deposits can be found in Australia, Canada, Zimbabwe and Portugal.

Cobalt is a key component of cathodes of most types of rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The global demand is expected to grow by 10% CAGR to 2022. Most of cobalt is mined as a by-product of copper (67%) or nickel (31%). DRC is expected to remain the main cobalt producer, now accounting for almost 70% of global production, while the rest is divided among Cuba, Russia, Philippines, Australia and other. Giving high demand and tight availability, the industry has been preparing for an upswing in demand growth by building inventories and securing longer-term supply. Even with the recent developments towards declining the average cobalt content in automotive batteries, by 2025 Cobalt is expected to still be a key component.

Battery producers seek nickel-intensive cathode materials to improve battery energy intensity, strongly supporting Nickel outlook. Sustained undersupply is expected in the short-medium term. Meanwhile, a two-tiered structure between laterite and sulfate is evolving fast. Laterites production is expected to absorb the demand growth coming from the stainless-steel industry. However, there is a much tighter balance in the sulfates needed for the electric vehicles batteries.

Metso can provide technology and equipment for the entire lithium, nickel and cobalt production chain from the mine to battery materials with project scope ranging from equipment packages to turnkey plant delivery.

Nickel, cobalt, and lithium as battery raw materials

Nickel, cobalt and lithium are key metals used in today’s active cathode materials and the chemistries deployed in high performance batteries. Highest demand growth is seen in the batteries used for portable devices, energy storage and especially in electric mobility, typically basing on NCM and NCA Lithium-ion chemistries.

Nickel and cobalt can be found from different type of ore bodies with most typical being lateritic and sulfidic ores. Quite often these mineralogies hold both nickel and cobalt, but cobalt is often also found together with copper. Both metals can also be found from several refined raw materials, like nickel matte or sulfide, from which the battery raw material refining can start.

The two main raw material sources of lithium are the brines from salars and the rock-forming lithium minerals, typically spodumene.

Metso can provide technologies for all the different minerals processing and refining steps of these raw materials.

Battery metals

Nickel and cobalt processing

The processing configuration of nickel and cobalt is defined by the raw materials from which the refining starts as well as what type of end-products are targeted. After needed minerals processing and pyrometallurgical refining steps, the hydrometallurgical processing typically consists of material handling, leaching, solution purification and battery metal or battery chemical production. The amount of impurities and other valuable metals in the starting material dictate the number of steps needed downstream from leaching to meet the purity requirements of the products used in the preparation of active cathode materials. High purity requirements are typical for these metals when produced for battery manufacturing purposes.

Metso has several processing alternatives for nickel and cobalt raw materials, ranging from pyrometallurgical to hydrometallurgical approaches and combinations thereof. Our experts, having broad and deep minerals processing and metallurgical industry knowhow, can offer our customers optimized and reliable process design based on their particular raw materials.

Battery metals

Lithium processing

Metso expertise provides the path to optimized solutions and complete plants for the production of high-purity lithium salts. Our innovative and proven calcination, leaching, purification and lithium recovery technologies cover the whole range of production, from raw materials to battery grade lithium products: most importantly Lithium Hydroxide Monohydrate and Lithium Carbonate.

Metso’s proprietary technology offers a short-cut process concept for spodumene concentrates: direct alkaline leach process for lithium extraction and solubilization, followed by crystallization of the lithium salt product. Furthermore, the leach process is environmentally sustainable: acid & sulphate free, without undesired crystallized salts or by-products, producing inert & neutral mineral residue for re-use or disposal. 

Battery metals
Lithium Hydroxide Process

Other minerals needed in battery manufacturing

Along the critical metals Nickel, Cobalt and Lithium, also many other metals play an important role in the battery manufacturing chain, either in the battery chemistry or in other components like current distributors or permanent magnets. Most typical metals are aluminum, manganese, copper, magnesium and iron. Also new chemistries for different type of batteries evolve fastly and provide up-potential for metals like vanadium.

Our portfolio of technologies can enable the recovery also of these metals, whether they are the main product from the raw materials or side streams from production.

Technologies for producing battery chemicals and precursors

We can provide technology for developing the active cathode precursors manufacturing production chain starting from the optimized raw materials selection down to precipitated metal hydroxide precursor materials.

Crystallized nickel and cobalt sulfates (and chlorides) with high purity requirements are typically used in the battery industry as starting point for the active cathode material preparation. These nickel and cobalt crystals are dissolved and form the metal sulfate solutions together with other metals needed in the specific battery chemistry, like manganese, from which the cathode precursor manufacturing starts.

For lithium batteries the lithium is typically introduced to the cathode precursor material in the lithiation stage of the process, where the lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide raw material is introduced to the upcoming cathode structure.

Depending on the starting raw materials and the required leaching, solution concentration and purification steps, the produced nickel and cobalt sulfate solutions may also be used directly for precursor manufacturing without the need to have intermediate metal salt crystallization steps.

Battery metals
Metso can provide all the key process technologies for nickel and cobalt raw material production

Producing nickel, cobalt, and lithium chemicals for battery production

After the metals from the metal containing raw material are leached into solution, the formed pregnant leach solution, PLS, typically needs to be purified. Typical methods include precipitation, solvent extraction and ion exchange. The purified and concentrated metal sulfate (or chloride) solution is then evaporated and crystallized to form the metal sulfate crystals as end products to be used in the precursor manufacturing process. These metal sulfate crystals are the raw materials from which the precursor manufacturing can start. Managing the impurities properly along the whole manufacturing chain is essential for meeting the purity requirements typical for battery raw materials. Depending on the composition of the metal sulfate solution produced, it may also be possible to start precursor manufacturing without the intermediate metal sulfate crystallization step.

Metso offers all the key technologies required to produce battery grade lithium salts, most importantly lithium hydroxide monohydrate and lithium carbonate, starting from raw materials or intermediate/impure lithium salts.

Metso has references for battery grade metal sulfate production and can supply all related technology with selected partners starting from technology packages to turnkey deliveries.

Metso utotec can also provide technology for developing the precursors manufacturing production chain starting from the optimized raw materials selection down to precipitated metal hydroxide precursor materials.

Challenges in recycling batteries

Recycling of batteries and the raw materials held within them is foreseen to grow significantly within the next ten years, driven especially by the life cycle of the batteries used for the strongly growing electric mobility. Significant work will be needed in the whole chain of recycle to meet the economic and technological challenges and increase efficiency in the recovery and recycle of all valuable elements. New operating models like reuse of batteries for other less intensive consumers (commonly called "second life") will also affect the business that will evolve around used batteries, but will not remove the eventual need for recycling the key raw materials.

Battery metals
Processing routes for recycled battery metals

Innovations within the whole recycling value chain will be needed

Current operators base the metallurgical recycling on two primary routes;

  1. Pyrometallurgical treatment followed by hydrometallurgical processes to produce new metallic products on the market
  2. Direct hydrometallurgical treatment for the completely sorted and separated battery components.

It is likely that the future will also consist of recycling plants operating based on these main routes, even if business models, costs of processing and economic value of the raw materials contained in the batteries will drive operators and businesses through different processing paths. As the variance in the type, end use and chemistries of batteries will grow, also room for different type of processing alternatives will grow on the market.

Metso as a technology company with solutions and products both for recycling of raw materials and for different type of metallurgical unit processing is well positioned to support and develop the projects rising from the increased requirement for getting the batteries recycled sustainably.

Metso and Aalto University are leading the research on battery recycling.

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