Country needs to have circular economy on the lines of US, EU

The production of lithium-ion batteries, a key component of electric vehicles, is projected to grow by five times, touching close to 7 million tonnes by 2030. In India, 50,000 tonnes of li-on battery waste is generated annually at present. However, it is estimated that li-ion battery waste is going to be 10-fold more.

These batteries will play a key role in India’s transition towards e-mobility and can also help the country meet its green goals. Given India’s dependence on other nations for lithium as well as other critical components present in the battery, there is a need to have a robust circular ecosystem so that these batteries are recycled back in a sustainable manner and in turn helps the country mitigate its social, environmental and geopolitical risks.

With the li-ion battery sector poised to grow exponentially, we asked Nitin Gupta, CEO & Co-Founder, Attero Recycling about the potential of the battery recycling segment in India and the opportunities and challenges associated with it.

Fig 1: Attero's lithium-ion battery recycling facility in Roorkee. (Image credit: Attero Recycling)

State of li-ion battery recycling globally and in India

As the lithium-ion battery industry is growing at a rapid pace in India, the amount of hazardous waste is also growing at a rapid pace and there is a need to treat it properly and recycle it.

Globally, the lithium-ion battery recycling industry is roughly 1 million tonnes and is growing at roughly around 50% year-on-year, Gupta said, adding that it is a $30 billion industry at present. In India, the amount of lithium-ion batteries generated is around 50,000 tonnes.

Gupta claimed that Attero Recycling is the largest company in India using the best technology recovering reusable resources from electronic waste in an eco-friendly manner. Attero has been granted more than 30 global patents on recycling technology developed in India.

It is the only company in the world which recycles all kinds of lithium-ion batteries, invariant to chemistry, shape and cell sizes. He claimed that Attero is the only company in the world to extract more than 98% of pure battery grade nickel, lithium carbonate graphite. “We are the only recycling company in the space to get carbon credits per tonne, and the methodology was approved by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)”.

What other countries are doing

The EU has decided to legislate the battery recycling sector and come up with two regulations, one of which focuses on a circular economy. The rules say no new batteries will be sold in Europe till they have a certain minimum recycled content.  Starting from this year, 5% of every battery sold by weight has to recycle batteries and separate components like cobalt, nickel, lithium and graphite.  This will be increased to 70% by 2030, says Gupta.

“What this has essentially done is to give an incentive to the battery recycling industry in the EU to extract more metals and put it back in the supply chain, completing the circular economy loop,” he said in an interview to Clean Mobility Shift.

The EU has also mandated the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) mechanism for batteries that basically says that any Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) that sells li-ion battery or any product which contains lithium-ion battery, there are certain take back targets – 65% of those batteries put into market after end of life should come back and get recycled scientifically, he said.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a global policy forum promoting policies to improve the economic and social well-being of people, defines EPR as an environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle.

Elaborating about the US, Gupta said its government has passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which is a 500 billion dollar subsidy bill that is being given by the Department of Energy. Through this, the US government has basically said they want the EV supply chain to be domestic in nature so that they do not have to rely on China.

“They want to give the money to companies to make sure that the entire EV value chain remains domestic – starting from mining to cell manufacturing to automobile manufacturing as well as recycling into the value chain. Therefore, part of that US bill is to incentivize companies to put up more recycling facilities for lithium-ion batteries,” he opined.

Fig 2: Mutanda copper-cobalt mine, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Source: YouTube

Road ahead for India

India has passed the EPR regulations similar to EU which says that every OEM that sells lithium-ion batteries or products which contain lithium-ion batteries must have certain take back targets. This is already there in India.  What is missing is an incentive mechanism for creating capacity for battery recycling, the same circular economy policy which the US and the EU have.

“The government is aware that India needs a circular economy policy, specifically for battery recycling as well. The government is working on it,” he said. He stressed that going forward, there is a need to incentivize the recycling industry so that more and more players can come in this sector.

Gupta expressed confidence that the lithium-ion batteries cumulative market size in India will grow significantly more than what has been predicted – from 2.9 GWh in 2018 to about 800 GWh by 2030. Solar energy is going to play a huge role in India’s transition to green energy and that would require li-ion batteries including for storage. On the other hand, by 2030, if one assumes that 30% of the entire automobile market in India converts to EVs, one can well imagine the growth of the battery sector. So the cumulative market will be more than 800 GWh.

He also stressed the need for spreading awareness about sustainable recycling of batteries in India. He said Attero remains active on all social media platforms to make sure that the message reaches the end consumer as well as business leaders. The firm also engages a lot of students through school campaigns as well as undertaking regular marketing and business development activities.

Issues in this sector

The usage of lithium-ion batteries in EVs is exploding in India and so is the usage of these batteries in multiple sectors – EVs, consumer goods, storage solutions among others. However, as the usage of li-ion batteries is increasing, it is basically creating two problems,” he says.

Once these batteries have been used and reach their end of life, they need to be recycled back in an environmentally-friendly manner because of the presence of hazardous materials in them. From a battery recycling perspective, that's a clear problem, given the extremely high number of batteries reaching their end of life.

He attributes pricing as the second problem due to the proliferation of lithium-ion batteries. Almost 50% of the cost of EV is the cost of a lithium-ion battery, he explains. At least 45% is the cost of raw materials that make up the battery, that includes cobalt, lithium, nickel, manganese and others. “Each of these critical battery components has significant ESG issues as well as social and geopolitical ones,” he said.

He noted that almost 70% of the world's cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo region, which is plagued by several issues including child labour, extremism etc. Given the current sources of cobalt and the present utilisation rates, the world will run out of the mineral by 2030. “Combine that with the fact that more than 90% of the world's cobalt is refined in China, thus creating a whole lot of geopolitical issues,” he argues.

Similarly, 60% of the world's lithium is mined in the Bolivia-Argentina region, which is also considered the world's driest region. The traditional lithium mining is an extremely water-guzzling process. Extracting one tonne of lithium using a traditional mining process requires more than 500,000 gallons of water. “So one can well imagine its social and ecological impact. Again, more than 90% of the world's lithium is refined in China,” he added