According to the United Nations, 61.3 million mt of e-waste will be produced globally in 2023 – more than the weight of the Great Wall of China. (Photo: Unsplash)

E&MJ explores the potential for metals recycling to enhance traditional mining business models 

By Carly Leonida, European Editor

On September, 28, 2023, leaders from 50 countries came together for a first-of-its-kind event hosted by the International Energy Agency (IEA). The Critical Minerals and Clean Energy Summit built upon the ministerial mandate given to the IEA in 2022 to further its work on critical minerals — the materials at the heart of key clean energy technologies, such as wind turbines, electric vehicles (EV) and solar panels.

The IEA has been asked by governments around the world to make recommendations on options to diversify supplies of critical minerals and clean energy technology manufacturing, and the summit followed the publication of the IEA’s inaugural Critical Minerals Market Review in July 2023.

The report showed that electric car sales increased by 60% in 2022, exceeding 10 million units. Energy storage systems experienced more rapid growth, with capacity additions doubling in 2022. Solar PV installations continue to shatter previous records, and wind power is set to resume its upward march after two subdued years.

All of this activity has led to a significant increase in demand for critical minerals. From 2017 to 2022, demand from the energy sector was the main factor behind a tripling in overall demand for lithium, a 70% jump in demand for cobalt and a 40% rise in demand for nickel.

Driven by rising demand and high prices, the market size of key energy transition minerals (as defined by the IEA) doubled over the past five years, reaching $320 billion in 2022 (broadly similar to the market size for iron-ore mining). As a result, energy transition minerals, which used to be a small segment of the market, are now moving to center stage in the mining and metals industry.

Expanding Metals Supply Scope

Devising new strategies to help meet this wave of demand was at the center of discussions among participants at the Critical Minerals and Clean Energy Summit, and six key action areas were identified to help alleviate pressure on primary metals recovery, including: accelerating progress towards diversified minerals supplies; unlocking the power of technology and recycling; promoting transparency in the markets; enhancing the availability of reliable information; creating incentives for sustainable and responsible production; strengthening efforts on international collaboration.

“Participants underscored the importance of tapping the full potential of technology and recycling to alleviate potential strains on supply,” the IEA stated in its summary. “New technology can reduce energy and water requirements in extraction and processing, optimize extraction methods and product design and end-of-life processes to improve resource efficiency. The IEA will also undertake an in-depth study to examine effective approaches to recycling covering all potential sources such as e-waste, industry scrap, end-of-life batteries, wind turbines and permanent magnets.”

In its October issue, E&MJ explored the recycling of mine waste, specifically tailings, in depth, but tailings are only one potential source of critical metals. For some mining companies — mainly those with vertically integrated business models — the recycling of various waste materials has been part of their revenue streams for years. For instance, Boliden’s Rönnskär copper smelter in northern Sweden began recycling waste in the 1960s. Today, it’s one of the world’s largest recyclers of metal from electronic material (e-waste) with an annual capacity of 120,000 metric tons (mt), including circuit boards from computers and mobile phones that are sourced primarily from Europe.

According to Boliden, over 50 million mt of e-waste are produced globally each year, some of which ends up in landfill sites where toxic chemicals can leach out over time. e-waste can also find its way to developing countries where informal e-waste processing can cause serious health and pollution problems. Upgraded E-waste is known as e-scrap, which is a source of precious metals, such as gold and silver, and base metals, such as copper, and this is what is processed at Rönnskär.

Preparing for End-of-Life EV Battery Wave

In a bid to increase their exposure to critical metals and build greater circularity into their business models, more and more mining companies have announced plans to expand their scope of supply over the past 24 months.

In May 2022, Glencore, which has been a producer, recycler and marketer of metals including nickel and cobalt for years, and Li-Cycle Holdings Corp, a global lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery resource recovery company, announced a strategic partnership under which Li-Cycle would become a preferred partner for Glencore in the Li-ion battery recycling sector.

Glencore said it has been working to establish regional platforms across the world to localize battery raw material supply chains within key regions in a scalable and sustainable manner. This would enable a set of key partners (of which Li-Cycle is one) to connect to these platforms.

According to the IEA’s 2021 landmark report “The role of critical minerals in clean energy transitions,” although the volume of Li-ion batteries available for recycling or reuse today is modest and largely dominated by batteries in waste electronic products, the fast-paced growth of EV sales and the demand for energy storage will alter this situation significantly by the end of the decade.

As the share of electric cars in the global car stock grows from the 1% seen in 2021 to the anticipated 50% in 2040, an influx of spent batteries is expected to arrive in the market, and this could pose waste management challenges. For example, when all the electric cars sold in 2019 reach the end of their lifetime, this would result in 500,000 mt of unprocessed battery pack waste. Given their seminal role in mineral and metal value chains, and their increasing degree of collaboration with downstream players, mining companies are well positioned to help tackle this challenge.

Through its strategic partnership with Li-Cycle, Glencore is seeking to combine primary and recycled battery raw materials to produce battery-grade end products. This will enable auto manufacturers to meet their EV ambitions while also meeting regulatory directives related to battery raw materials. This will be facilitated through the localization of supply chains and increasing recycled content in battery raw materials over time.

“In Europe, Glencore will work to assess the feasibility of utilizing its existing asset footprint with a view towards re-purposing some of our assets. This will reduce the lead time for achieving industrial scale production of battery grade end products,” Glencore said in its press release. “Glencore will also explore, together with other appropriate supply chain partners, the production of precursor cathode active material (pCAM) in Europe and potentially North America.”

Glencore and Li-Cycle Partner for Portovesme

Li-Cycle, which was established in 2016, is working to create a domestic closed-loop battery supply chain. The company leverages its innovative Spoke & Hub Technologies to provide a safe, scalable, customer-centric solution to recycle different types of Li-ion batteries. Spoke & Hub Technologies are based on a hydrometallurgical process that provides an environmentally friendly and cost-effective alternative to pyrometallurgical processing.

“At our Spokes, or pre-processing facilities, we recycle battery manufacturing scrap and end-of-life batteries to produce black mass, a powder-like substance which contains a number of valuable metals, including lithium, nickel and cobalt. At our Hubs, or post-processing facilities, we will process black mass to produce battery-grade materials, including lithium carbonate, nickel sulphate and cobalt sulphate,” said Li-Cycle in its marketing materials.

In September 2023, Li-Cycle and Glencore announced a two-phased approach to develop the Portovesme Hub project in Sardinia, Italy. Phase 1 will process up to 11,000 mt of black mass annually and, subject to regulatory approvals and agreements, is expected to start operations in the first half of 2024. Phase 1 project is expected to produce up to 1,500 mt of lithium carbonate, as well as up to 3,000 mt of nickel and 500 mt of cobalt per year.

Phase 2 is expected to be the final long-term plan and capacity for the facility, and this will have an annual processing capacity of 50,000 to 70,000 mt of black mass, producing up to 16,500 mt of lithium carbonate, 18,000 mt of nickel and 2,250 mt of cobalt. The Portovesme Hub is designed to be able to process all forms of Li-ion based black mass, including lithium iron phosphate (LFP) materials.

Shredded e-waste being fed into the first step of Descycle’s lab pilot. (Photo: Descycle)

“The development of the Hub with Li-Cycle at Glencore’s Portovesme site is progressing well,” said Kunal Sinha, Global Head of Recycling for Glencore. “The project, combined with our existing footprint in the primary supply, as well as recycling of battery metals, is a core tenet of our ambition to become the circularity partner of choice with Li-Cycle for the European battery and EV industry. Specifically, this multi-phase approach to the development of the Hub allows us to start to close the loop for battery materials in Europe as early as the first half of 2024, while we work towards designing and building Phase 2.”

Li-Cycle and Glencore anticipate forming a 50/50 joint venture (JV) for the Portovesme Hub, which also contemplates long-term financing from Glencore to fund Li-Cycle’s share of the capital investment. For Phase 1, Li-Cycle will provide technical expertise and oversight, with Portovesme and other technical and operational experts from the Glencore group directing the build and operation. The definitive feasibility study for Phase 2 is underway and is scheduled to be completed by mid-2024, while commissioning for the Phase 2 Portovesme Hub is slated for late 2026 to early 2027.

Scrap Aluminum Reduces Rio’s Carbon Footprint

Scrap metal is another fast-growing source of critical metals. According to Transparency Market Research, sales of scrap metal recycling are expected to total $78.1 billion by the end of 2031 (a CAGR of 6.1% from 2023).

In July 2023, Rio Tinto and Giampaolo Group, one of North America’s largest fully integrated metal management businesses, announced the formation of a JV to manufacture and market recycled aluminum products. Under the agreement, Rio Tinto will acquire a 50% equity stake in Giampaolo Group’s Matalco business — a producer of recycled aluminum billet and slab products — for $700 million.

Matalco operates six facilities in the US and one in Canada which have the capacity to produce approximately 900,000 mt/y of recycled aluminum. Rio Tinto said the transaction reflects the partners’ shared commitment to meeting the increasing demand for low-carbon aluminum as a key material in the energy transition.

It added that: “The JV will enable Rio Tinto to provide a broader range of high-quality and low-carbon, primary, recycled, and blended aluminum products, at a time when customers are looking for solutions to lower their carbon footprint. The JV will also enhance Matalco’s current service offering to a wider array of customers, while securing access for low-carbon primary metal for its operations. Recycled aluminum is forecast to account for more than half of U.S. demand by 2028.”

Rio Tinto is a global leader in aluminum, with a large-scale, vertically integrated business, including bauxite mines and alumina refineries as well as smelters. The Matalco JV continues Rio’s investment in building its supply of low-carbon aluminum in North America. Previous investments include $1.1 billion to expand the use of its AP60 technology at its Arvida aluminum smelter in June 2023, $29 million to establish new recycling capabilities at the Arvida smelter in August 2022, and $188 million to increase billet production capability at the Alma smelter in July 2022, all in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec.

Rio Tinto is also working with the Governments of Canada and Quebec towards a deployment of the ELYSIS zero-carbon aluminum smelting technology at its Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean facilities. With the current development pathway, the ELYSIS joint venture between Rio Tinto and Alcoa aims to have its technology available for installation from 2024, and the production of larger volumes of carbon-free aluminum approximately two years later.

DEScycle’s Environmentally Friendly E-waste Solution

Recycling doesn’t just provide a means to an end. In some cases, new metal recovery technologies can also answer mining companies’ primary extraction conundrums too.

In October 2023, clean tech company, DEScycle, announced that its novel metals processing technology, which is based on a class of chemistry called Deep Eutectic Solvents (DES), had achieved the milestone of Technology Readiness Level 6 (TRL 6).

Commissioned in August 2023, the lab pilot which resulted in the TRL 5 designation, represented the culmination of an 18-month feasibility study with the UK-based Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) and the beginning of work which will support progression to TRL 7 and, in the future, a commercial plant design.

E&MJ spoke to Leo Howden, Managing Director of DEScycle, to find out more. “The lab pilot was the last step of our feasibility study,” he said. “We’ve now successfully run the whole DES e-waste process from start to finish several times at the 10- to 20-liter scale. The lab pilot has demonstrated metal recovery rates of greater than 99% for precious metals such as gold, silver, palladium, and critical metals such as copper.”

The process comprises a series of steps during which all metals are taken into solution and then selectively recovered; the formulation can be tailored to target different metals depending upon each business’ objectives. In e-waste, copper and gold are the highest value and highest component metals, but other precious and base metals can be recovered too.

DEScycle is now working to identify a suitable site for the large-scale pilot which is likely to be near Teesside in northeast England. Design of the pilot plant is well underway with construction slated to begin in Q2 2024. DEScycle already has an agreement in place with GAP Group, a recycling company based near Newcastle, to construct the first commercial scale facility at its site in Gateshead once piloting is complete.

E-waste is the world’s fastest growing waste stream. According to the United Nations, 8 kg of e-waste per person will be produced worldwide in 2023. This equates to around 61.3 million mt of e-waste produced globally in just one year — more than the weight of the Great Wall of China. Only 17.4% of this will be properly collected, treated and recycled. The remaining 50.6 million mt will likely be placed in landfill, burned or illegally traded and treated, or simply hoarded in households.

“E-waste is a massive growth area and it’s extremely valuable,” Howden told E&MJ. “We’re seeing a lot of interest from industry, particularly upstream producers of electronic products who are waking up to the environmental impact of their supply chains. There’s a lot of legislation now around extended producer responsibility which means those companies are becoming more involved with recycling their products at the end of life. As a result, we’re seeing pushback on older recycling technologies, such as smelting, which can be energy intensive and polluting.”

DES-based recycling uses biodegradable, organic materials that work at low temperatures and pressures. The DES e-waste process uses significantly less energy than current smelting technologies and doesn’t produce any scope one CO2 or metals emissions. The technology is also low capital cost and scalable, which means that DES recycling facilities can be co-located with local existing recycling infrastructure.

“This is a huge shift away from the aggregation model used at the moment where materials are shipped abroad to a large smelter to be recycled,” said Howden.

This also expands the potential for recycling to be integrated into mining and metals businesses. Currently, the only mining companies that recycle are those that have vertically integrated supply chains, inclusive of metals refining. But with DEScycle’s technology, this isn’t necessary.

Solving Primary Metals Recovery Challenges

E-waste recycling might be the beach head market for DES but, longer term, DEScycle is also looking at its potential to enhance primary metals recovery. The aim is to replace the incumbent capital-intensive, high-pressure acid leach (HPAL) process used to recover metals such as nickel and cobalt, with a capital-light DES-based process.

“We’re actively working with some of the world’s largest mining companies to see how DES can help reduce their scope one and two emissions as well as enhance their primary metals recovery,” said Howden. “This will have an impact on their profitability and potentially reduce their reliance on developing new mines to meet increased demand for critical metals.”

DEScycle has successfully invented a replacement pathway for HPAL in nickel laterite processing, and the company is eyeing copper as another potential market.

Can it be used to leach copper sulphides as well as oxides? asked E&MJ.

“Yes we’ve achieved almost miraculous results of over 99% copper recovery from copper sulphides, which is incredibly exciting,” Howden replied. “But work is still at an early stage. We’ve also done quite a lot of work on recovering rare earths. Ultimately, DES is a platform technology that can be used to address lots of different challenges in the mining and metals industry.”