Resource Use

How the UK Battery Strategy will increase recycling of lithium-ion cells

Government’s recently published vision to boost the domestic supply chain for lithium-ion batteries by 2030 highlights role of circular economy.

UK Battery StrategyFollowing commitments to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emission, the Department for Business and Trade recently published its first UK Battery Strategy, identifying an essential role for recovery and recycling of existing batteries.

Lithium-batteries already play a central role in the circular economy, replacing single-use batteries as well as now providing the fuel source to drive vehicles. There are already 660,000 electric vehicles (EVs) in use on the country’s roads, 256,000 of which were newly registered in 2022 – a 40 per cent increase on the year prior.

As the batteries in these EVs begin to reach their end-of-life stage, it is estimated by the Faraday Institution that approximately 16,500 tonnes of battery packs will need to be processed by 2028. This figure is anticipated to rise rapidly in the years following, growing to around 150,000 tonnes by 2035.

The UK Battery Strategy identifies the logistical and economic difficulties in stockpiling and exporting batteries for processing, while highlighting the economic opportunity associated with the critical materials found in a battery’s cathode – cells with nickel or cobalt typically contain around £7/kg of material value.

Analysis from Green Alliance has uncovered that, alternatively, recycling could provide up to 10 per cent of battery critical mineral requirements by the year 2035. To enable this success, its report ‘Powering Up the UK Battery Industry’ points to both the need for large-scale lithium-ion battery manufacturing facilities, a.k.a. Gigafactories, and the need to locate refining infrastructure for recycled batteries close to these Gigafactories, otherwise collected end-of-life batteries are as likely to be exported.

While there are no specific figures for planned investment in recycling infrastructure, the UK Battery Strategy is accompanied by a pledge by the Government to invest ‘£2 billion of new capital and R&D funding for five years to 2030’ for ‘zero emission vehicles, batteries, and their supply chains’.

In the near-term, it does note that as part of the ongoing resourcing of the Faraday Battery Challenge that £11 million will be distributed to competition winners ‘developing technologies across the battery value chain in areas such as artificial intelligence and digital tools to increase battery performance, future technologies such as lithium-metal anodes and sodium-ion batteries, and improved recycling technologies’.

Capacity building

Compared to other leading countries in the field, Government financial support for lithium-ion recycling facilities in the UK has been modest.

A £4.4 million grant has been provided by the Advanced Propulsion Centre to RECOVAS, a project led by EMR to develop infrastructure to collect and recycle electric vehicles and their batteries. This investment will enable RECOVAS to develop a process for evaluating end-of-life batteries to determine whether they are best sent for repair, reuse or recycling. As part of this initiative, partner manufacturers in the automotive sector will explore how to design vehicles and their batteries to improve recovery.

Another illustrative investment is £18.5 million from the Faraday Institution for RELIB, which aims to establish the technical, economic and legal infrastructure ‘to optimise the material management of lithium-ion batteries in automotive’. This includes creating recycling routes ‘based on digital diagnostic tools that can interface with battery passports, and identify new research topics’.

Each of these, cited in the UK Battery Strategy, illustrate the nascent stage that the lithium-ion recycling industry is still in. Currently, the country’s only industrial-scale battery recycling facility is operated by Recyclus Group in Wolverhampton, which is licensed to annually turn 22,000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries into black mass, the powder derived from shredded lithium-ion batteries that contains lithium, cobalt and nickel for recycling.

However, this is far behind the scale of investment elsewhere. For example, China’s largest battery manufacturer, CATL, announced an investment of £2.8 billion in the construction of a shredding, material recovery and refining facility which will handle discarded cathodes and anodes, converting them into precursors for the production of new ones.

Similarly, BASF recently announced the construction of Europe’s largest shredding facility in Germany, situated alongside a refinery and cathode active materials production plant.

According to the UK Battery Strategy, the primary hurdle in scaling up battery recycling lies therefore in ensuring its commercial viability, considering the current low number of electric vehicle batteries that have reached the end of their life cycle.

The Government does however note several other countries currently experiencing success in this field, stating that the international activity in this realm underscores the need and opportunity for the UK to keep pace with battery recycling.

Calls to scale up UK battery recycling have been made clear from the responses to the Call for Evidence earlier this year – respondents highlighted this as an area where the UK can become competitive and the need to increase the country’s capacity.

Doing so provides a considerable opportunity for the UK economy, with a report from Market Research Future indicating that the global market for battery recycling could be worth up to £27 billion by the year 2030.

Future Regulation

In July 2023, the European Union (EU) adopted new regulations in efforts to increase the rates of battery recycling. These changes implemented new minimum mandatory rates of recycled content for batteries sold within its borders.

Coming into force in August 2031, batteries must include a minimum of 16 per cent cobalt, 6 per cent lithium and 6 per cent nickel that come from recycled sources rather than mining. These percentages will rise to 25 per cent, 12 per cent and 15 per cent respectively by the year 2036.

In order to continue exporting batteries from EVs to the EU, UK companies will need to ensure that their products comply with the new regulatory requirements.

The UK Government does note a growing capacity to recycle lithium-ion batteries, however, it makes clear in the strategy the need to expand this in order to mitigate the current need to send dismantled EV batteries to Europe.

The strategy tacitly acknowledges the need to align the UK with other countries, stating that it would continue to ‘adopt international standards for reuse, repurposing, and recycling in line with our closest trading partners, where it is in our national interest and achieves our desired policy objectives’.

It adds that: “The Government is conducting further work on regulatory levers to incentivise reuse, repurposing, and domestic recycling infrastructure for all battery chemistry types, including lithium-based technologies.”

Defra has stated that it will be publishing a consultation and a new call for evidence within early 2024. This will centre around increasing battery collection rates alongside encouraging best practice in end-of-life management of all battery types.

With the commissioning of the Battery Strategy Taskforce, a cross-sector advisory group, the UK Battery Strategy points to the business opportunities associated with a more circular approach, such as design for reuse, recycling and repurposing.

Here data and metrics are seen as a central component and a role appears to be earmarked for the creation of certification schemes, as well as how to create an environment where liability does not result in a ‘do not fix’ default.

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