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Green Li-ion technology could be the solution to recycling lithium ion batteries

  • The lack of economically viable recycling options for Lithium Li-ion batteries could soon be an environmental crisis
  • Singapore-based startup Green Li-ion says its patented technology could be the solution – speeding up processes and lowering costs
  • The exploding market for electric vehicles that run on Lithium Li-ion batteries is adding much urgency to the push for recycling
  • Because of his work, Insider named Katal to our annual list of the 10 leaders transforming energy in Asia.
  • Visit Insider’s Transforming Business homepage for more stories.

As CTO and cofounder of Singapore-based start-up Green Li-ion, Reza Katal is putting his chemical and environmental engineering background to work on tackling a growing environmental problem: how to recycle Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. 

“For two decades, lithium-ion batteries of the kind you would find in laptops, smartphone, and now electric vehicles have been our preferred source of portable energy,” Katal said. “But the sad reality is that with a lifespan of only one to three years, 95{41490b4d0cf0dbc5ec3f65e11fff509c7d6ed2a53a838ebf7adf43f0908f07f3} of these batteries end up as dangerous landfill. With current technology, it is simply not economical to recycle.”

Unlike regular lead batteries, which can have up to 98{41490b4d0cf0dbc5ec3f65e11fff509c7d6ed2a53a838ebf7adf43f0908f07f3} of their material recycled, Li-ion batteries have a more complex mix that doesn’t work well with typical industrial recycling processes. This means most batteries, along with the potentially hazardous metals they contain, will be dumped in landfill.

Katal says Green Li-ion’s technology can change this. The company has developed a patented multi-cathode processor – the GLMC-1 – that the company says can speed up  current recycling processes, while at the same time lowering costs, and is the only technology to fully rejuvenate every type of Li-ion battery cathode. 

Essentially, the technology allows recyclers to  extract the metals and out them back into the market and flips the current way of thinking. Rather than seeing Li-ion batteries as waste, they become an important resource, allowing cobalt, nickel, manganese and other expensive metals to be individually recovered and ready to be used in new batteries.  

“With glass recycling or paper recycling you have a true circular economy and that is what we are doing with batteries,” adds Katal.

EV sector increasing urgency for recycling solutions

The environmental challenges faced by Green Li-ion and others is only going to become more pressing as more and more car owners turn to electric vehicles (EVs), which are almost exclusively powered by Li-ion batteries.

“We need to work closer with auto manufacturers and battery manufacturers, because over the next 4-5 years there will be a huge amount of batteries coming on to the market,” Christian Reiche, Green Li-ion’s head of battery rejuvenation, said.

The most immediate issue is the need for more regulation around mandated recycling.  “If you have the best technology but don’t get the batteries, then there is no recycling,” German said. “For everyone this is the biggest challenge we have to face.”

The good news is that more countries are seeing the need for greater governance around Li-ion recycling.  China is a clear leader in this respect, which makes sense given that it is the world’s single-largest market for EVs, accounting for over 50{41490b4d0cf0dbc5ec3f65e11fff509c7d6ed2a53a838ebf7adf43f0908f07f3} of global sales by 2020. 

As early as 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued provisional regulations obliging EV manufacturers to establish a network for the collection and recycling of batteries. These regulations have since been updated, placing even more of the responsibility for recycling on to auto and battery manufacturers.

At the same time, Reiche says there needs to be more work done to take recycling into consideration at the design stage of battery manufacturing. Currently, manufacturers are more focused on lowering costs and extending battery life than they are on designing battery packs that could be more easily recycled. 

Even something as simple as improving global standards on battery labelling would make a big difference. Without adequate labeling of battery device composition, recycling processes become slower and more expensive. “These manufacturers need to understand the recycling process before they design a battery,” adds Reiche. “This is very important. It needs a bit more time but is moving in the right direction at least.”

A new EV battery ecosystem 

Reiche also suggests that EV manufacturers pay more attention to the battery ecosystem, in particular adopting a wider use of battery leasing. 

While most EVs are sold with the battery system included as part of the purchase, a number of manufacturers are now looking at battery leasing options. In China, for instance, EV maker Nio has launched its Battery as a Service (BaaS), which enables customers to purchase vehicles without the battery and instead sign up to a monthly subscription service that gives them access to battery packs of varying capacity depending on their needs. 

Other manufacturers such as Honda and Nissan are also exploring battery leasing on some of their EV models.

The move makes sense from a commercial perspective. The high initial purchase price of EVs is often quoted as the most significant barrier to greater uptake of EVs. Given the battery system is the single-most expensive component in an EV, leasing would bring down the capital costs.

In environmental terms, leasing would also compel the auto maker to be responsible for battery management, collection and, ultimately, recycling. 

“This is a better option, as you can guarantee better the circular value chain,” Reiche said.  “Consumers are not trained on what to do with batteries. They are more concerned that the car has a kilometer range and has lifetime value. With leasing though, once a battery has reached the end of its first life, the auto manufacturer has the responsibility to reuse or recycle the battery.”

Growing interest from investors

For Green Li-ion, the growth of the EV market and the associated conversations around recycling are undoubtedly good news. The company has already caught the attention of early investors, which is not surprising given that the global Li-ion recycling market is estimated to reach over US$12 billion in 2025, up from US$1.5 billion in 2019. 

On the subject of investors, Green Li-ion is clear that it is looking for partners, rather than typical VCs. Katal noted that two of the company’s current investors are already in the recycling business and have each purchased a GLMC-1 machine.

This collaborative approach also extends to how Green Li-ion views its competition.

“We see ourselves more as  a partner than a competitor,” Reiche said. “Our model is different as we are not running a recycling plant. We are only responsible for the last step in the recycling process. We can even sell our machine to our competitors and help them improve their current processes. This is not to say that their processes are necessarily bad, but we have the technology to increase the outcome and the purity of the metals they extract. We can help them to be even better.”

For the immediate future though, the next step for Green Li-ion is to build on the existing machine and manufacture its industrial-scale GLMC-1 machine for their first customers. “That is our goal for 2021,” Katal said. “Once finished, it will be a game changer.”