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Recycling businesses are improving processes to remove metals from old batteries.

Their hope is to take advantage of an expected shortage of materials, such as cobalt and lithium, when sales of electric cars start rising.

The main problem that companies face now is a shortage of used batteries to recycle. But leaders of the recycling industry are sure that the supply, and profits, will come.

Albrecht Melber is co-managing director of the German recycling company Accurec.

"The value of lithium carbonate and natural and synthetic graphite has doubled or tripled in the last three or four years, becoming the most valuable materials besides cobalt in the automotive battery. There are big values that can be recycled in the future,” he told the Reuters news agency.

Automobile manufacturers currently sell less than one million electric-powered vehicles every year. However, some experts expect electric vehicle sales to pass 14 million a year by 2025.

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence is a data specialist group. It predicts the auto industry will need an extra 30,000 tons of cobalt and 81,000 tons of lithium a year to meet demand by 2021.

Larry Reaugh is head of American Manganese, a Canadian recycler of metals. He notes that large lithium cobalt batteries contain high amounts of valuable minerals.

"If this equated to mining, you would have a very high-grade feedstock," he said. "We're mining batteries, you might say."

Mining enough cobalt is a concern for battery manufacturers.

Most of the world’s cobalt supplies come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where armed groups operate in areas close to mines. This year, the price of cobalt has more than doubled.

Supplies of lithium, mainly mined in Chile, are under far less pressure at this time. Argentina and Australia are likely to increase cobalt production in the near future.

However, business leaders are concerned about having enough lithium for use in batteries.

Most recyclers heat old batteries to high temperatures to recover metals, a process known as pyrometallurgy. But this generally only produces cobalt, and sometimes nickel, while lithium is more difficult and costly to collect.

New technology is helping to recover more waste metal from used batteries. Some companies, such as Umicore and Retriev, say they have developed ways to get lithium once more spent, or used, batteries are available for recycling.

The lack of a steady supply of spent batteries is one of the largest barriers to commercial development, recycling companies say.

While sales of electric cars are growing fast, lithium ion car batteries last eight to 10 years, on average. This means it will be almost 10 years before the supply of spent batteries is big enough to make the process profitable.

American Manganese says it is planning to direct its attention on recovering minerals from faulty batteries. This will help the company get around the wait time for working batteries to lose power.

Even if supplies are low, companies seem hopeful about the future. Todd Coy is the vice president of Retriev.

"At current commodity prices we need approximately 4,000 tons per year of batteries to justify the estimated capital costs,” he said. That number is more than three times its current processing volume.

“We are confident this volume will be coming in the future -- beyond 2023 -- but the market is not there yet,” Coy added.

Umicore says it expects volumes of spent batteries to rise above 100,000 tons a year over the next 10 years, with “massive volumes” coming onto the market around 2025.

Once that happens, the chances for the recycling industry to capitalize will take off.
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