A new process for extracting and transforming metals needed for electric car batteries could see the carbon footprint – as well as manufacturing costs – of EVs significantly reduced.
The process, which is under patent, is being brought to market through a new agreement announced this week by Uniquest, the University of Queensland’s commercialisation arm.
Although the most common EV battery type is known as lithium-ion, other metals used to make these batteries include nickel and cobalt. In fact, nickel forms the largest metal component of EV batteries in terms of weight.
Current methods of manufacture involve extracting nickel and cobalt from low grade ores to a pure form, and then combining the cobalt with nickel to form a stable composite.
Now, the result of eight years of research by hydrometallurgists Dr James Vaughan and Dr Will Hawker at the University of Queensland is being developed for commercial purposes through the agreement by Pure Battery Technologies Pty Ltd, who are seeking funds to build a demonstration plant in Townsville, Queensland.
However cobalt supply is not keeping up with the growing demand for EV batteries, and the ability to produce the nickel and cobalt components at a fraction of current costs would cement Australia’s position in the global battery space.
As Bjorn Zikarsky, CEO of Pure Battery Technologies explains, the current process of extracting nickel and cobalt then reforming as a composite consumes a lot of energy.
“The CO2 footprint of making a electric car is much bigger than the CO2 footprint of making a combustion engine,” he says.
“You want to drive your Tesla, and you can be all happy about it, but you won’t be CO2 positive until you’ve clocked about 70,000 kilometres.”
To reduce the carbon payback period of electric cars, the carbon footprint of EV battery production must therefore also be reduced.
“The amount of metal and materials that have gone into the battery is very CO2 intensive and that means it comes at a cost, and the whole Industry is focusing how to reduce that and bringing down the cost of those batteries. We call that a race to the bottom,” Zikarsky explains.
The bonus of the new process being developed by Pure Battery Technologies is that it is also cheaper.
“We are accelerating that race to the bottom, by demonstrating that you can actually use very simple technologies to reduce the environmental footprint and therefore reduce the costs of those batteries that go into the electric vehicles,” he says.
Put simply, the new process skips the step of removing all elements (such as hydroxides) to get a pure form of the metals.
“To extract a pure metal, the processes are often very energy consuming. (Using UQ’s patented acid leaching process) we found a way to extract the right battery mix out of the ore in a more direct way,” he says.
“We’re saving time, we’re saving energy and also we’re saving lot of CO2 emissions.”
The process also means that more cobalt is recovered than current methods are able to produce and there are very little tailings or waste.
In addition to being able to use the process to make new batteries, Zikarsky confirms that it can also be used to recycle materials out of spent batteries – in fact, the older and more oxidised the batteries are, the easier it is to recycle them.
“We can take the nickel-cobalt out of those batteries and we can recycle them more efficiently and cheaply than we think other people can,” he says.
“Our technology removes the oxidation in the most efficient manner – in fact, the more oxidised it is, the better it works.”
The next step for Pure Battery Technologies is to build a plant to demonstrate the process works, and partner with other producers for the benefit of all involved.
The plant would also have the capacity to move into commercial production of up to 5,000 tonnes of the nickel a year.
For Townsville, where the company intends to build the plant, locals will also benefit from the expected creation of up to 40 jobs.
“We need people to make it work,” Zikarsky concluded.
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology and has been writing about electric vehicles for two years. She has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability and is co-organiser of the Northern Rivers Electric Vehicle Forum.