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Lithium Australia recycling plan puts spark back in old batteries

Perth-based battery technology company Lithium Australia is blazing a path in the lithium-ion battery, or “LIB” recycling sector through its wholly owned subsidiary Envirostream. It’s a sector the CSIRO estimates could grow to be worth $3.1 billion in Australia alone.

Lithium is mounting a case for the crown of the commodity of the decade as it finds its way into just about every piece of modern technology including phones, laptops and electric vehicles. However with demand only moving in one direction, a critical question is what happens to lithium batteries when they expire?

It’s a question that Envirostream is looking to solve.

Despite the many benefits of lithium-powered energy solutions, the widespread use of lithium batteries as a portable power source has given rise to a number of new environmental issues, with more than 90 per cent of used batteries ending up in landfill sites.

Recent studies suggest lithium waste is growing at a remarkable rate of about 20 per cent per year, potentially exceeding 100,000 tonnes a year by 2036 — enough to fill 42 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Envirostream is attempting to address this issue head-on by employing its unique recycling process to shred and recycle lithium batteries from across the country at its Victorian plant.

The battery recycling process delivers a number of end-products that can be reused including steel, copper, aluminium and mixed metal dust, or “MMD”.

Importantly, MMD can be repurposed into new batteries, helping reduce the amount that needs to dug out of the ground each year— a costly and time-consuming process that can take a decade to complete and comes with an environmental cost.

The company says its recycling method can reuse more than 90 per cent of a battery’s mass, making it a world leader in the industry all from a product that would otherwise be sitting in landfill sites around the country.

Recently, Envirostream and garden and home maintenance giant Bunnings finalised a contract for the collection of used batteries from particular stores in Australia and New Zealand, a move aimed at encouraging customers to repurpose spent devices but also lift Envirostream’s profile.

Whilst its battery recycling appears to be gathering steam, the company is also looking to grow develop its own battery technology.

Through its wholly owned subsidiary VSPC, Lithium Australia is also one of a number of companies shifting its focus towards lithium ferro phosphate, or “LFP” battery chemistries over the more commonly used nickel, manganese and cobalt, or “NCM” types.

The new formulation has gained attention for appearing to offer a longer life span, requiring less maintenance, higher safety, and offers more efficient charging and discharging in addition to being lighter.

A number of heavy hitters in the electric vehicle industry including Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Ford are coming on-board in the shift towards LFP’s as its preferred battery chemistry.

Tesla CEO, Elon Musk has led the charge in recent years saying his company would switch more of its electric vehicles to LFP batteries in order to address looming nickel and cobalt supply problems.

Tesla has already indicated almost half of all its vehicles produced last quarter were equipped with LFP batteries.

In the past, the use of LFP batteries in EVs has been largely overlooked because their chemistries offer lower energy densities, making electric vehicles less effective with shorter range.

However, in recent years development in LFP’s has advanced to the point where it is now practical to use the batteries in less expensive, shorter-range cars.

Tesla already has re-engineered its standard range Model 3 and Model Y vehicles produced in China to use LFP cells.

More than 99 per cent of world’s LFP’s are currently produced in China and VSPC says it is looking to carve out some of China’s dominance.

According to the company, its process could offer lower production costs, consistent end-products and deliver a commodity that offers improved environmental advantages.

VSPC is set to deliver via a planned an initial 10,000 tonne per year LFP manufacturing plant.

The company, along with Australian engineering and project management consultancy Lycopodium, is currently running the rule over its proposed project through a definitive feasibility that will push the venture into reality by 2026.

Queensland-based VSPC has earmarked both Australia and the USA as possible plant locations.

VSPC appointed Lycopodium to drive the project. It says the company is already developing its patented LFP cathode powder production process to allow it to ramp up production of the material.

VSPC’s focus has been on creating samples for customer evaluation and comes after the conclusion of a pre-feasibility study last year.

With battery use growing exponentially and spent cells piling up just as quickly, Lithium Australia and its subsidiaries are charging to the front of a burgeoning industry.

Is your ASX-listed company doing something interesting? Contact: matt.birney@wanews.com.au

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