Why Recycling Lithium-ion Batteries Is Still the Need Of the Hour
About 58 per cent of the world's lithium reserves are in Chile and about 43 per cent of rare earth mineral reserves are in China
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Transitioning to a green economy is a key goal for many countries today and India is no exception. Multiple factors have been coming together for India in its commitment towards ecological sustainability, the latest being the discovery of 5.9 million tonnes of lithium in the Salal-Haimana area of Reasi district, Jammu & Kashmir by the Geological Survey of India. This finding is being lauded as a game-changer and a major step towards achieving India's electrification goals.
This is because a single electric vehicle (EV) has around 10 kilograms of lithium in it and over 40 per cent of the cost of any EV in India is for the lithium-ion battery. However, about 58 per cent of the world's lithium reserves are in Chile and about 43 per cent of rare earth mineral reserves are in China, according to a report by The Council and Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation. Due to this, India imports huge quantities of lithium batteries.
As the demand and market for EVs increased, the dependency on Lithium has also increased over the years. According to an analysis by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), India's lithium imports increased by about 6.5 times between 2010 to 2017. India imported 450 million units of lithium batteries valued at INR 6,600 crore ($929.26 million) in 2019-'20, said Harsh Vardhan, Union Minister of Science and Technology and Earth Sciences, during his Lok Sabha speech on February 7, 2020.
To shun this dependency, few startups in India today are looking at finding alternatives to this technology, while some others are working towards battery recycling.
How much will J&K reserves help advance the EV transition in India? Will it suffice, or should we continue to look at lithium alternatives? Should we simultaneously focus on looking for more such reserves?
Reserves vs alternatives vs battery recycling
Alternatives such as aluminum air and solid-state batteries have also shown promise but we are yet to see them being produced and manufactured at scale. Some of the interesting and high-potential alternatives to Li-ion batteries are technologies around Hydrogen fuel cell which have seen some adoption in the Japanese market, and Graphene led supercapacitors. However, hydrogen fuel cells are reportedly loaded with safety concerns and processing and supply chain challenges.
Thus, the news of these reserves have come as a hope for the industry Interestingly, 1,600 tonnes of lithium reserves were found in Karnataka in January 2021. However, later, the department of atomic energy said that unless a proper technology or method is available to profitably extract lithium from its ore, the real benefit of exploration may not be there and that it is not commercially viable.
To reach a cell production capacity of 1GWh, we need 850 tonnes of li-carbonate, depending on the cell chemistry. The global cell production capacity is 500GWh, and India's target for 2030 is to reach 70GWh of cell capacity. "Now, considering all the 5.9 metric tonnes of lithium reserves found in J&K could be extractable, it can support a cell production capacity of 6TWh, giving India an extrapolated push to reach its 2070 net-zero goals. The discovery does not just make India self-sufficient in catering to its battery demands, but will also help India reduce its dependency on neighboring countries, and thus protect its FOREX capacity and reduce the trade deficit as the capital invested in lithium imports will be locked in the country," said Pankaj Sharma, co-founder and director at Log9 Materials.
However, he feels that we need to advance in materials research to support the conversion of the mined lithium content into battery-grade lithium to ensure the complete supply chain process takes place in India. Further, mining may also have a very high negative impact on environment. "Every % of demand met by recycling output substitutes mining which significantly benefits the environment. At the same time, recycling these raw materials can help reduce the cost of new batteries and create employment opportunities in li-ion battery recycling. In the long run, li-ion battery recycling can add a positive GDP impact to any economy and help meet the increased demand for Li-ion batteries," said Nitin Gupta, CEO and co-founder, Attero Recycling.
The total world reserves of lithium are around 88 Mn tonnes with Bolivia having the highest lithium reserves of 21 Mn tonnes, followed by Argentina (20 Mn tonnes), the United States (12 Mn tonnes), Chile (11 Mn tonnes), Australia (7.9 Mn tonnes), China (6.8 Mn tonnes) and India (5.9 Mn tonnes).
"It will reduce dependence on lithium imports, substantially cut down battery manufacturing costs, and help lower the prices of EV vehicles in the future. However, we are still at an early stage of exploration and need to ascertain the commercial viability. Secondly, investments in Lithium batteries need to be prioritized. Once these tenets are in place, we are confident this discovery will make India a global destination for EV manufacturing," said Kalyan C Korimerla, MD and co-promoter, Etrio Automobiles.
"The amount of lithium reserves discovered in J&K is massive (if completely extractable) and could account for the cell production capacity of 6TWh. Nevertheless, it depends on the type of lithium content found to confirm the exact extractable amount and hence the usable amount of the most crucial component of EV batteries," added Sharma.
However, he feels that in parallel, we should explore possibilities of battery recycling and establish an end-to-end indigenous supply chain process to reduce our dependence on foreign countries.
"Over 80 per cent of the battery can be recycled as 90 per cent of valuable metals can be recovered. Doing so will reduce dependence on imports to a greater extent over the long run. However, from a vantage point of view, our efforts must be directed not only toward mining lithium reserves and alternatives but also providing investment support to battery recycling and EV manufacturers in India," said Korimerla.
While the 5.9 metric tonnes of lithium reserves bring hope that there is a possibility of discovering more such large deposits across the country, experts feel that we have to parallelly focus on lithium alternatives to shun dependency on imports. Creating and strengthening battery recycling infrastructure is also the need of the hour. Experts feel that Li-ion battery recycling also has the potential to emerge as a sunrise sector for the Indian economy for the next several decades.
"India generates more than 50,000 tons of lithium-ion battery waste annually, growing in the range of 40-80%, depending on different models used for computing electric vehicle growth in India. Li-ion battery recycling is the need of the hour in the country as battery materials have huge ESG, supply chain and geopolitical risks, said Gupta.