AkkuSer from Nivala recycles batteries – but how?

In Finland consumers can return their used portable batteries in the red cardboard boxes supplied by the Finnish producer organization Recser. These red boxes can be found in the stores and in the companies that sell batteries. But have you ever wondered, what happens to the batteries after you have dropped them to the box?

Project Engineer Jukka Kumpusalo from AkkuSer is about to tell you in his blog text.

Portable batteries collected by the Finnish producer organization are delivered to AkkuSer’s factory at Nivala. There’s a steady flow of recyclable material to AkkuSer’s factory around the year. First the batteries are weighed and sorted. After sorting the different battery fractions are directed to AkkuSer’s own recycling solution or delivered to other recyclers specialized in processing certain battery types.

Our recycling professionals are responsible of sorting different kinds of batteries into separate fractions – for each of which there is an appropriate recycling solution.

What materials are recovered and how?

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AkkuSer operates two recycling solutions. The first one is used for recycling the lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion) originating mostly from laptops, mobile phones and digital cameras. These batteries are called the high grade cobalt lithium-ion batteries and they are recycled with AkkuSer’s patented Dry Technology -method. With this technology three different fractions are produced: one rich in cobalt, and the two remaining fractions rich in copper and iron, respectively. The most valuable fraction is the one containing cobalt. Fraction’s quality is close to the primary cobalt ore, hence it is delivered to Freeport Cobalt at Kokkola for refining. Lithium-ion batteries are also acquired from some other countries, for instance from some Nordic countries and Germany.

The other AkkuSer’s recycling solution is used for alkaline batteries – the main product recovered from them is the so called black mass. Iron is separated from the batteries, too. Black mass is delivered further to Poland for zinc recovery.

AkkuSer is also cooperating with Tracegrow at Kärsämäki: in the near future Tracegrow will separate manganese and zinc from the black mass in a chemical process. The recovered elements are used to produce a fertilizer to be utilized in agriculture around the globe.

Additionally, nickel-metal hydride batteries (Ni-Mh) are recycled with the alkaline recycling solution. Nickel and cobalt are the most important metals recovered.
Some of the battery types sorted at AkkuSer are delivered for further processing to some other operators, for instance lead (Pb) batteries used in cars. Also nickel cadmium batteries (Ni-Cd) and lithium primary batteries are directed to specialized processes external to AkkuSer.

Future challenges in cobalt production

In EU cobalt is classified as a critical raw material. In the future the need for cobalt is increasing further. Most of the cobalt produced in the world originates from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Usually cobalt is a by-product of mining, not the main target.

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It is evaluated that electrical vehicles under development would use approximately 7 kilograms of cobalt per battery pack (in Tesla S-model). At present cobalt production is around 100 000 tons per year. That would cover the need of approximately 14 million cars per year. This is quite a small amount considering the intended generalization of the electric vehicles. The sufficiency is further diminished when all the laptops, the mobile phones, the digital cameras and other applications using Li ion batteries are taken into consideration. It is urgent to get the lithium-ion batteries into the organized collection system to enable the recovery of the cobalt in the first place.

Also more and more so-called low grade lithium-ion batteries are coming to the market. This is due to the challenges in cobalt production and the different properties required from the batteries in different applications. The challenge considering their increase is how to recycle these mixed-metal batteries cost-effectively and ecologically.

Luckily AkkuSer has an ongoing development project for tackling these challenges.

Jukka Kumpusalo works as a Project Engineer at AkkuSer. His tasks include e.g. designing and coordinating development projects for AkkuSer.

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