A collaboration between EnergyLab and New Energy Nexus is seeking innovative battery ideas as the world adapts to power storage, writes Jeremy Chunn.
Australia may supply more than half of the world’s lithium, but does it have the smarts to engineer real value out of the mineral? As battery storage is incorporated into power grids to balance intermittent generation from solar and wind, and as electric vehicles replace the petrol-powered variety, research and development (R&D) teams and entrepreneurs are working hard to get a slice of the action.
The Supercharge Australia Awards, a competition to attract talent in the local lithium sector, is the first partnership project between local renewables incubator EnergyLab and global equivalent New Energy Nexus. The intent is to accelerate the lithium value chain in Australia, and the first cohort of 11 contenders included an eclectic electric bunch.
First place in the inaugural event went to Renewable Metals, which is looking to commercialise an alkali-based recycling process that it says recovers up to 95 per cent of materials in batteries, including lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese.
“It’s a bit of a paradigm shift,” Renewable Metals CEO Luan Atkinson tells EcoGeneration. “Acid is a bit like using a sledgehammer because it will dissolve everything.
“That’s good on one hand, but it creates impurities you need to take out afterwards, and then you add more chemicals and create byproducts. Alkalis are very selective for the metals we are trying to extract and operate at a lower temperature.”
Chemicals are recycled throughout the process to reduce capital and operating costs, whereas competing acid-based technologies involve more steps and produce large volumes of sodium sulphate, a low-value byproduct.
Australia has a record for using alkali-based processes in nickel refineries, whereas acid is more commonly used around the world.
“That was a genesis of the idea,” says Atkinson – pictured above (centre) with Megan Fisher from Energy Lab (left) and Danny Kennedy from New Energy Nexus (right) at the Supercharge Australia Awards in March 2023 – whose colleagues have experience using alkalis in refining processes.
“But now we’re not talking about a single metal, but up to six metals.”
The team has been testing the process on end-of-life batteries, rather than production scrap, and has enough of them stacked away to see it through its next two upscales.
“Because we are in an R&D phase, we are not looking for commercial quantities,” she says.
A pilot study in late 2022 saw recovered samples at marketable intermediate quality.
“We can produce battery-grade products,” says Atkinson. “There will be lots of places the product can go.”
For example, a buyer might choose to send recovered lithium to be further refined at specialised facilities. However, when Perth-based Renewable Metals reaches full commercial operation, the plan is to produce battery-grade products inhouse.
The success of any recycler is determined by two vital factors: it must be able to get its hands on what is to be recycled, and it must be able to sell the materials it has recovered.
Because of potential supply chain shortages and the focus on critical minerals, Atkinson is confident Renewable Metals will find buyers for the materials it produces to the right specifications.
“But you need to get the batteries coming in,” she says.
To that end, the company has shown battery manufacturers and suppliers what it is up to in the hopes of tapping the growing volume of powerpacks that are charging and discharging day and night around Australia.
“Everyone is very keen to have a complete recycling solution in Australia,” says Atkinson. “At the moment, it is a halfway step where batteries are pre-processed to black mass and that is exported for extraction of minerals.”
The company has received funding towards a feasibility study for a plant from the NSW Critical Minerals and High-Tech Metals Activation Fund. Atkinson is also hopeful Australian rebates for recycling and stewardship will be implemented to encourage consumers to do the right thing.
“There is also a very big social licence to operate,” she says. “People will be looking for safe and responsible ways to recycle batteries.”
The Supercharge Australia competition is open to any business working to enhance the economics of lithium tech – from exploration and extraction, to recycling and battery manufacturing, and any of the many implementation phases along the way.
The field of expertise in lithium is broad, with finalists in the 2023 Supercharge Australia Awards ranging from development in materials to replacing polluting powerhouses in working vehicles.
Second place in the competition was awarded to Sicona Battery Technologies, which is working towards commercialisation of materials that can almost double the capacity of graphite anodes in lithium batteries, using technology developed at the University of Wollongong in NSW.
In third place, Roev wants to convert diesel utes to electric, where it estimates a cut to emissions of more than 100 tonnes during a vehicle’s lifespan. The startup is currently targeting top-selling Toyota Hilux and Ford Ranger vehicles.
Fourth spot went to Vaulta, a Brisbane-based company that turns out a recyclable and repairable lithium battery solution.
Any entrepreneurs or startups seeking to compete in the 2024 Supercharge Australia Innovation Challenge should contact Kirk McDonald, the event’s project manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck!