In this guest article, Venkat Rajaraman, CEO – Cygni Energy discusses the need to take a timely cognisance of the importance of Lithium-ion battery recycling for India.
EV adoption and lithium-ion cell dependency
With the FAME-II program and various state-level EV policies, the EV adoption in India is expected to grow from the current demand of about 150,000 vehicles (dominated by two-wheelers and three-wheelers) to at least about 2 million vehicles by 2030 i.e at best a very conservative estimate.
India currently imports almost all of the lithium ion cells. With the recent cabinet approval of Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme of Advance Chemistry Cell batteries, India is embarking on a mission to set-up at-least 50GWh of battery cell manufacturing in the next 5-7 years. This scheme envisions Tesla-style giga factories to manufacture lithium ion cells and batteries.
By the time the PLI program yields results and various manufacturers start manufacturing the lithium ion cells, India would’ve imported over 5 GWh of Lithium-Ion cells.
Why does India need urban mining?
An urban mine is the stockpile of rare metals in the discarded waste electrical and electronic equipment like mobile phones, lithium batteries and other electrical and electronic equipment. Urban mining is the recycling of used batteries where most of the rare metals such as Lithium, Cobalt, Nickel, Manganese and Graphite are recoverable through mechanical and chemical treatments.
It is a well-known fact that India doesn’t have much of minerals needed for battery cell manufacturing, be it Lithium, Cobalt or Nickel. So, India needs to rely on battery recycling and needs a large number of zero effluent recycling plants. India’s import bill would skyrocket if we don’t have viable manufacturers for recycling of Lithium batteries in a short span of time. Our Lithium cell import would be in excess of 10GWh by the year 2025, which translates to an import bill of over >US $1 billion to our exchequer. Interestingly, this also presents a golden opportunity for India to become the urban-mining capital of the world for Li-Ion battery-materials.
Where does India stand in Lithium Recycle race?
Recycling all over the world has gained attention after JB Straubel (Co-founder of Tesla) founded Redwood Material, focusing on Lithium Recycling. Several global companies, including Umicore of Europe, Glencore of Canada are focusing on Lithium Recycling with large investments in recycling technology. Several research institutes around the world are focusing on Battery Recycling, such as University of Birmingham, University of Warwick etc. EIT InnoEnergy is a group focusing on innovation with a commitment to decarbonising Europe with tailor-made support for start-ups and scale-ups and take commercially attractive recycling technologies to market. They have invested over Euro 650 million in 480 sustainable innovations, some of which are in recycling domain as well.
India is lagging behind in the Lithium Recycle race. For 10GWh of battery packs in the next 5 years, India needs an excess of 60,000 tonnes of recycling capacity. Companies like Attero, Recykal, Loham and Karo Sambhav are focusing on eWaste and Lithium recycling but then India needs a far greater recycling capacity if we aim to be a leader in urban mining.
Lessons from the solar sector
With the growth of India’s solar sector, a lesson stares at us. This sector has faced the wrath of poor quality solar panels and India becoming a dumping ground for low-cost solar panels which degrade much faster than the claim of 25 years performance. China is indeed a dominant force in the Li-ion cells accounting for over 75% of global production and a whopping 80% of global lithium refining capacity. China is ahead of India by at-least 5 years in the Lithium Battery technology and we already find evidences of China’s first generation cells flooding the Indian market. It is imperative that India doesn’t fall into this low-quality trap and make sure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes as happened in solar.
India’s doesn’t have a policy framework for lithium ion battery recycling yet though there has an been announcement that the Govt. is in the process of framing a recycling policy. It is critical to take into account the following:
1. Extended Producer Responsibility – Mandatory for Lithium battery manufacturers to tie-up with recyclers and make it incumbent on producers to collect and recycle the used batteries.
2. Design for Reuse – There is lot of focus given for efficiency, cycle life etc under the PLI scheme. But there needs to be a focus on design of batteries from re-use perspective. There are several ways to design battery packs so that they can be better re-used at their end-of-life.
Some design techniques from re-use perspective include creating cell design that will enable rejuvenation of a spent cell and improve the ease of recycling at the end of life, with an electrolyte flush/rejuvenation. Other techniques involve interconnection of cells using nuts and bolts without inter-cell welding, making it easier for replacement. Conceptually, recycling-friendly batteries must be safe to handle and transport, simple to dismantle, cost-effective to manufacture and minimally harmful to the environment.
3. Learning from the past – Come up with a robust implementation plan for such policies where it doesn’t suffer the fate of lead-acid battery recycling. Lead-Acid batteries are mostly recycled in informal sector, inspite of having a clear policy. Improper and environmentally unfriendly recycling by the informal sector has been a major concern for policy makers. The presence of an informal sector and lack of monitoring have resulted in an ineffective system of recycling mainly driven by the interests of the informal sector.
4. Similar to ReCell set-up by US Department of Energy and EIT InnoEnergy, we need to find ways to encourage innovation and find new techniques to improve the Lithium battery recycling.
There are several ways to recycle the lithium batteries but the most common ones are pyro-metallurgy (through process of heat, removing unwanted material) and hydro-metallurgy (through liquid, dissolve the metals and extract the key minerals). There is an opportunity to innovate with new techniques such as direct recycling.
We are at an inflection point. Only time will tell if Lithium Recycling is an Achille’s heel or a Golden Opportunity. This is truly a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) that India needs to achieve. Time to prove for India that if there is a Goliath in front of you, that means there’s a David inside of you.
About the author
Venkat is the Founder/CEO of Cygni Energy, a leading storage technology company with cutting-edge expertise in EV Batteries (2W & 3W) and Energy Storage Systems (Telecom etc). Cygni has deployed over 75MWh of storage solutions in technical partnership with IIT Madras. Venkat has over 25 years of experience in Product Design and Engineering and has a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University.
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