Persistent bottlenecks in the supply of the critical raw materials needed for electric vehicle (EV) batteries have led manufacturers to look beyond primary extraction. Attero, an Indian battery recycling specialist, is among several players expanding to meet insatiable demand for EV battery materials.
The company, which is based in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, plans to invest $1bn in its global expansion over the next five years. It will establish its recycling facilities in Europe, the US and Indonesia, targeting a global annual capacity of 300,000 tonnes of batteries by 2027.
“End-of-life lithium-ion batteries contain valuable metals,” Nitin Gupta, the CEO of Attero, tells fDi, adding that “the number is only increasing” and “our extraction efficiency [stands at] 98%”.
Attero’s planned expansion follows the trend of growing battery recycling capacity outside of China, which currently accounts for around 70% of the market share, according to the price-reporting agency Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
fDi Markets data shows the battery recycling market generated a record foreign direct investment in 2021 with $637m, which is nearly 10 times larger than the previous year, totalling around $69.4m.
Founded in 2008, Attero is India’s largest electric waste management and lithium-ion battery recycling company. The company operates a recycling plant in Roorkee in India with partners including Samsung, LG and Hyundai.
Sarah Colbourn, an environmental, social and governance research analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence says to fDi that it is expected “end-of-life batteries will begin to dominate the supply of recyclable material [from 2030]”.
Mr Gupta claims Attero’s recycling process stands out for its sustainability, with the company being recognised by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
In 2013, the UNFCCC said that Attero’s Indian operations for electrical waste recycling projects contribute to sustainable development by reducing energy consumption, decreasing direct greenhouse gas emissions, and the amount of electrical waste to be disposed of in landfill sites.
Alex Laugharne, a principal consultant at CRU Group, tells fDi that battery recycling is more eco-friendly than primary battery production as it avoids an initial mining step which is detrimental to the environment.
However, the material recovery process is not a pollution-free activity either. Certain recycling methods result in an environmental risk to freshwater wildlife, and toxic and greenhouse gas emissions through a high energy-demanding process, according to research published by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2021.
Lithium-ion batteries do contain valuable key metals such as cobalt, nickel, graphite, manganese, copper and aluminium. “We take back end-of-life [batteries] and recycle them in the most environmentally friendly manner,” says Mr Gupta.
In the next five years, the company aims to take at least a “10% of global market share for lithium-ion battery recycling” with its $1bn investment. In doing so, Mr Gupta says it will meet at least 15% of the global lithium, cobalt and graphite demand.
The company is building another recycling facility in South India, which he expects to be up and running by April 2023. The company says it is in the process of expanding the capacity from its current capacity of 3500 tonnes to 11,000 tonnes by October 2022. The plan is to scale up to 50,000 tonnes in India in the next five years.
At the same time, the company is expanding its battery recycling operations to Europe by building a plant in Poland by May 2023, and putting up a plant in the US state of Ohio by the end of 2023, and then one in Indonesia in the next two years, Mr Gupta confirms.
This area of Europe is home to multiple gigafactories; all of which could become potential customers for the Attero facility, selling reclaimed metals. South Korean battery maker LG Chem has a gigafactory in Poland, and its Korean competitors Samsung SDI and SK Innovation have gigafactories in Hungary. Tesla and Northvolt are building new factories in Germany and Sweden respectively.
Similarly, Ohio is neighbour to several major American gigafactories, such as LG Energy Solutions and General Motors’s joint gigafactory in Michigan. General Motors is building another factory in Ohio, and SK and Ford is building a gigafactory in Tennessee, in the neighbouring state of Kentucky.
Indonesia has attracted investments in the EV supply chain. Chinese CATL and the South Korean consortium led by LG Energy Solution, the largest and second-largest battery makers in the world, invested around $6bn and $9bn in the EV battery-integrated project.
Need to secure feedstock for cost-effectiveness
Experts say it will not be easy for Attero to meet its expansion goal due to a lack of available recyclable materials.
“In terms of cost-effectiveness, it is relatively expensive to build a plant in the first place, and the availability of large volumes of materials for recycling is not there yet, especially in the form of EV batteries.” Mr Laugharne notes.
Mr Gupta says “we need 12 months for construction and one month for it to turn profitable”.
However, Mr Laugharne says a limited number of recyclable EV batteries will be one of the challenges in the recycling industry in the near term as the EV batteries currently on the market will take around 10 years to be recyclable.
“It’s probably not till the early 2030s that recycled material from batteries starts contributing a really meaningful volume of supply,” he adds. “More efficiency will come with a larger scale that will help to reduce the cost of the initial collection stage,” considering the EV batteries used today.
But Mr Gupta says this challenge has already been solved, as the company has signed contracts for the input supply of one million tonnes of lithium-ion batteries discarded every year in Europe, and the number of spent batteries will be increasing 30% year-on-year. He says it is now securing feedstock for the US plant.
“There are multiple channels for collection,” Mr Gupta says, noting that the company is taking backup recall batteries for recycling.
“There are cases where multiple battery packs or EVs have been recalled,” Mr Gupta adds. “We handle all those recalled battery packs, recycle them in a multi-threaded manner, extract materials and give it back in this circular economy fashion.”
This article first appeared in the August/September 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.