ABRI: A circular economy in battery recycling

ABRI battery recycling

Australia’s battery recycling sector is establishing itself as an innovation hub. Katharine Hole, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative, provides a run-down of the latest developments.

Recycling is the starting point in achieving a circular economy for battery manufacturing, says Katharine Hole, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI).

Katharine says industry innovation and increased investment in processing used batteries, research and development, and technology to transform recycled materials to cathode materials, is evidence of the importance of a strong battery recycling sector in Australia. 

These trends are being mirrored overseas where they are supported by large-scale public sector funding.

Katharine Hole, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Battery Recycling Initiative.
Katharine Hole, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Battery Recycling Initiative.

“It’s the bridge between mineral and cathode recovery from used batteries through to chemical refining and active materials manufacturing for batteries,” Katharine says.

“Materials produced from recycled lithium and nickel metal hydride batteries have 38 per cent lower greenhouse emissions than virgin materials. While spent batteries require significantly less resources to obtain one ton of battery-grade cobalt or lithium.”

Australia’s battery recycling sector is quietly leading the charge to establish itself as an innovation hub, and ABRI is a key part of the revolution.

ABRI was formed by a group of battery manufacturers, recyclers, retailers, government bodies and environment groups to promote the collection, recycling, and safe disposal of all batteries. It now has more than 50 members committed to the battery circular economy journey, including nine companies in lithium recycling – from fully operational through to start-up – six lead acid battery recyclers and two zinc carbon/alkaline battery recyclers. These companies operate across Australia.

And yes, there is recycling of EV and energy storage batteries to recover critical minerals including cobalt, copper, nickel, graphite and lithium.

Katharine says battery recyclers, vehicle and battery original equipment manufacturers (OEM), renewable energy investors, mining and mining equipment, technology and services (METS) companies, and the university research sector are collaborating on research and proof of concept to expand battery recycling and reuse. 

“These companies recognise the groundwork needs to happen immediately to deliver their circular economy and zero emissions goals,” Katharine says.

She says the launch of B-cycle, Australia’s battery stewardship scheme, was the first step change for the industry. In the first year of operation the collection rates for small batteries increased from eight per cent to 16 per cent. 

The next step change is readiness at scale to recycle the projected 3600 per cent increase in lithium battery volumes over the next decade coming from EVs and energy storage systems.

Katharine says ABRI’s growing membership base includes those who recycle lithium, lead acid, alkaline and zinc carbon batteries for use in new batteries and other materials such as lead, zinc, and green cement. 

There’s also collaborative work across ten Australian universities and research centres to improve the sustainability of recycling processes and develop patents to provide quality alternates to virgin mined materials.  

At the same time, ABRI members are developing solutions for battery reuse – refurbishment of ten failed nickel metal hydride batteries can return six or seven of these batteries to the road. Companies are also working on reuse of lithium EV batteries to create energy storage systems.

But while industry is preparing for a clean energy future, Katharine says there are challenges emerging, including the need to invest now to be ready at scale when batteries come through over the next decade. 

ABRI hopes the National Battery Strategy, which was opened for consultation in early 2023, will recognise the critical role of the sector and prioritise recycling of batteries in Australia where there is available capacity, underpinned by locally developed technology and innovative processes.

ABRI members hope the strategy looks at minimising regulatory costs and red tape, where it’s safe and sustainable to do so. Katharine says a current ABRI member survey shows that inefficient and conflicting regulatory processes are currently a barrier for business.

Funding for research and proof of concept work, including capital expenditure to support commercialisation of technology in sustainable metals recovery processes and secondary industries, is also key.

“The battery recycling sector is driving innovation in packaging, fire safety, monitoring, AI and robotics,” Katharine says. “The sector has broader manufacturing opportunities than solely undertaking metals recovery.” 

She says consistency with policy developments and regulation overseas, such as producer responsibility and battery material traceability rules, should be considered to maximise and leverage existing opportunities. And Australia should be promoting the availability of Australian recycled critical minerals and battery materials for use as recycled content in new batteries in other countries such as Europe and India.

Battery supply chain and feedstock from recycling.
Battery supply chain and feedstock from recycling.

“Australia has a unique opportunity to drive the battery recycling revolution,” Katharine says. 

“Cross sectoral collaboration and investment is naturally emerging as sectors bring their skills and technical knowledge to take advantage of opportunities arising from battery-driven electrification.”

She says the collaboration is already resulting in a growing relationship between mining/renewable energy companies and battery recyclers; as well as emerging commercial relationships between OEMs and battery reuse businesses to lead repurposing of grid connected energy storage batteries from EV batteries.

Battery recyclers and research institutions are developing proprietary recycling processes and supporting technologies such as AI, robotics, and fire safety. 

“Companies are applying for patents and looking for opportunities to commercialise research locally and export,” Katharine says.

“Companies in the scrap metal collection industry sector are building recycling facilities and drawing on their existing networks to safely and sustainably collect and recycle batteries.”

ABRI is also working with the Battery Stewardship Council, the operator of B-cycle, and the Australian Battery Industry Association (ABIA). ABIA and ABRI have a statement of collaboration to drive continuous improvement in battery quality, industry standards and further development of world class circular economy practices. 

A list of commercial battery recycling services is available on ABRI’s website. 

ABRI will host its first battery recycling conference later in 2023. Further details will be forthcoming.  

For more information, visit: www.batteryrecycling.org.au

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