UK researchers behind the development of a process that aims to “revolutionise” lead-acid battery recycling have been awarded a grant of EUR1.3 million ($1.5m) from the European Union.
The funding boost from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme has gone to UK-based Aurelius Environmental and Dr Vasant Kumar of the materials science and metallurgy department at the University of Cambridge.
The grant is to support the on-going development of ‘Fenixpb’— a hydrometallurgical process that produces lead oxide directly from spent batteries.
Aurelius’ technology director Dr Athan Fox said: “The key advantages of our hydrometallurgical process include a reduction in the carbon footprint, compared to smelting, by over 80%, virtually zero emissions of noxious gases like SO2 and NO2 and lead oxide produced directly from waste batteries.”
“By producing lead oxide directly from spent batteries, we are effectively eliminating the need to oxidise lead ingot or to source lead metal from the open market,” Fox said. “Studies conducted by Dr Kumar have shown that lead-acid batteries made from our proprietary paste can outperform primary source batteries in terms of both the energy density and battery life.”
Fox said the technology is “poised to revolutionise the recycling of lead-acid batteries”.
Aurelius’ CEO Miles Freeman said Kumar and his team, who “originally pioneered” the process, are now working with Aurelius, which holds an exclusive licence to develop Fenixpb.
Freeman said industrialisation and commercialisation is nine months into its development and “a full-scale production capacity plant is expected to be operating by the first quarter of 2018”.
“With the advent of new electrolytic-based processes coming from the USA and still under development within the EU, a new recycling era dawns,” Freeman said. “There is indeed the need for improvements in quality of secondary lead and for continued advancement in lead-acid battery technology to meet the ever-increasing demand for advanced electrochemical storage capacity.”
According to Aurelius, 12 billion tonnes of LABs are in use globally. “In Europe, the recycling rate of these batteries is as high as 95%, but the recycling technology is energy intensive,” the company said.
“Indeed, pyrometallurgy requires about 18kWh to recycle a 1kWh battery. The amount of energy used to recycle one battery far exceeds the amount of energy stored in that battery. For every 10,000 tonnes of LABs recycled, as much as 4,500 tonnes CO2, 4 tonnes SO2, 2 tonnes NO2 and 1 tonne particulates are produced.”
Even if abatement systems are employed to minimise pollution, “such systems are expensive and cannot always be relied on”, Aurelius said.
Freeman said the commercial viability of any alternative recycling process “also faces challenges when compared to incumbent pyrometallurgical processes that, over years, have been well rehearsed, improved, and made very cost-efficient”. “We have therefore endeavoured to ensure that our process is not only environmentally cleaner, but also cheaper to run, while making a superior end-product for lead-acid battery manufacture.”
Freeman, who is due to present at this month’s 5th International Secondary Lead Conference in Malaysia, said the recycling of used lead-acid batteries is turning the corner to a “greener, cleaner and more sustainable process.”
Earlier this year, Aqua Metals, the US start-up which aims to commercialise a water-based process for recycling lead-acid batteries, said it was preparing for “explosive growth in 2018”.
Aqua Metals chairman and CEO Dr Stephen Clarke, who was asked about the Fenixpb research by BBB, said: “This is good news, Aqua Metals welcomes any advances in the ‘paste to paste’ market. We developed our technology to have the flexibility to produce both ultra pure lead and ultra pure oxides. To date we have only seen a limited market for the latter, that’s why we have focused on AquaRefined lead.”
Clarke said: “We look forward to a time when there is a meaningful demand for direct supply of both conventional and advanced lead oxides, in addition to our lead ingots.”