Materials Processing Institute leads £60k project into recovering critical materials from used EV batteries

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The Materials Processing Institute has been awarded funding by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to develop techniques to recover lithium and graphite from used electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

With the government announcing a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030, it is estimated there will be a million electric vehicles on the UK’s roads within the next four years.

However, any rapid increase in ownership presents supply and sustainability challenges – in particular, how to meet demand for lithium, graphite, cobalt, and other critical materials used to manufacture EV batteries.

An ability to recycle lithium and graphite currently sourced from Latin America, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia and China – would secure availability, limit the environmental impact of extracting finite raw materials and reduce production costs, making EV’s more affordable.

Whilst much of the battery can already be recycled, it remains difficult to access and reuse the battery cell and its critical metals due to the volatility of the electrolyte.

The Materials Processing Institute, based on Teesside, will deliver the £60,000 project in partnership with Inprotec, a metallurgical engineering business from West Yorkshire, which designs and supplies pyrometallurgical process plant for the recovery, upgrade and refining of precious metals and lead; Cornish Lithium, an innovative mineral exploration and development company, based in Penryn and focused on the environmentally responsible extraction of lithium; and Leeds-based Waste Care, a business specialising in the management of waste electronic equipment.

As part of the bid to Innovate UK’s Sustainable Innovation Fund, the Institute presented the project as an opportunity to apply its technical and process expertise in extracting valuable materials produced as a by-product of the steelmaking process.

Its case was further enhanced by the Institute’s experimental laboratory assets together with the technical capabilities of Inprotec and Cornish Lithium.

With Cornish Lithium is focussed on the extraction of lithium from primary sources in the UK, this project provides an opportunity to investigate the feasibility of producing lithium from both primary rock sources, and recycled lithium batteries, using the same extraction techniques.

The co-production of lithium from these sources can support the circular economy in the future.

Andrew Buchanan, the institute’s circular economy group manager, said: “As the demand for lithium and other critical materials grows, it’s great to see that the Institute and our partners are leading the drive towards greater resource efficiency in the zero-carbon economy.

“Our proposal, led by Christopher Smith, a principal researcher here at the Institute, demonstrates our commitment to support the development of new techniques and processes that will lead to an expansion of materials that can be incorporated into the circular economy.”

Innovate UK executive chair Dr Ian Campbell said: “In these difficult times we have seen the best of British business innovation. The pandemic is not just a health emergency but one that impacts society and the economy.

“This lithium battery recovery project along with every initiative Innovate UK has supported through this fund, is an important step forward in driving sustainable economic development. Each one is also helping to realise the ambitions of hard-working people.”

When the project is completed, the Institute and partners will look to build upon the findings of this initial phase and further develop ways to improve and ultimately support the commercialisation of technologies for the recovery of lithium, graphite and other valuable materials from end of life electric vehicle batteries.

Innovate UK, part of UKRI, is investing up to £191m to fund single and collaborative research and development projects as part of the Sustainable Innovation Fund over the next two years.

The Sustainable Innovation Fund is funding 1,103 projects, 1189 UK businesses and totalling over £130 million in support across the UK.