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Towards a sustainable material cycle

Photo: SMS group: Connected e-cars in a car park. One car is not closed and shows the inner technology

Electric vehicles, smartphones, robot lawn mowers – the worldwide demand for rechargeable batteries is growing continuously. But the resources needed are scarce and subject to controversy. Our joint venture Primobius provides smart recycling solutions that help meet this growing demand in an environmentally friendly way.

Logo: SMS group and Primobius: Two circles run into each other, one circle has the wording "For a sustainable material cycle".

Growing demand for recycling in Europe

In the automotive industry, the course is set for e-mobility. In the transition to electric mobility one component has been and will be playing a crucial role: the battery. It is the battery’s capacity that determines to a large extent whether we will be able to drive only to the next supermarket or whether our electric car will reliably take us all the way to our holiday destination. While hardly any potential car buyer takes notice of the fuel tank in a combustion vehicle, the battery has become the key criterion for consumers to decide against or in favor of an electric vehicle. Apart from being an important performance driver of EVs, batteries also drive up their sales price. Up to 40 percent of the value added in EV production is accounted for by the battery cell! Thanks to their high energy density, lithium-ion batteries have become the preferred choice in e-mobility.

Besides the automotive industry, other sectors rely on the storage of electrical energy in lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are also used in electric devices and solar panel systems, for example. Europe is about to become a global leader as a producer of lithium-ion batteries. Therefore, we have been observing a soaring demand for the raw materials needed for their production, and this trend is set to continue. Yet, in particular, lithium and cobalt are conflictual materials. There are social, ethical and environmental concerns about the conditions under which these raw materials are mined.

Therefore, more and more companies worldwide are making commitments to greater sustainability – and to more responsible raw material sourcing. Meanwhile, producers of electric vehicles and electronic devices are even legally obliged to take their products back and recycle the end-of-life lithium-ion batteries the products contain. The producers can perform the recycling either themselves or entrust specialists with the task of recovering the valuable materials. Battery recycling also brings a further benefit: It achieves a much better energy balance than battery production based on ores. This means that battery recycling plays a key role in further improving the CO2 balance of electric vehicles and electronic devices.

Our target is to offer a recycling solution – in the short term – that is both efficient and highly scalable. The market needs viable recycling options that enable the recovery of valuable materials from batteries. We provide the necessary technology and equipment – and the operating and logistics concepts.

Horst Krenn,
Managing Director of Primobius GmbH

Sustainable in multiple ways

In summer 2020, we founded the joint venture Primobius GmbH – with Australian project developer Neometals Ltd. – with the objective to develop an environmentally friendly recycling process for lithium-ion batteries. This advanced technology enables us to recover valuable materials from vehicle batteries and rechargeable batteries in electronic devices in an exceptionally sustainable way for reuse in the production cycle. The Primobius recycling solution is based on a two-stage process. In the first stage of the process, batteries of different sizes and types are comminuted and separated into plastic and metal fractions, producing what is called the black mass, which contains the key ingredients for the production of modern batteries. During the second step – the hydrometallurgical process – lithium, nickel, cobalt and other elements are extracted from the black mass. More than 90 percent of the alloying elements can be recovered as ultra-clean materials in this way, and reused in cathode and battery cell production – closing the last gap of a value-added battery production cycle.

Primobius has successfully advanced this technique within a very short time to industrial scale. The two-stage process provides an important advantage: While the mechanical communition of the bulky material can be performed in smaller facilities near the collection points, the processing of the black mass can be centralized in dedicated facilities. This saves on transportation costs, avoids CO2 and reduces the risks of fire and of leaking hazardous substances associated with larger accumulations of lithium-ion batteries.

Photo: SMS group: Demonstration plant in Hilchenbach, shredding and sorting spent batteries
The demonstration plant in Hilchenbach: In step 1, the batteries are comminuted and sorted (shown in the foreground). In the second step, lithium, nickel, cobalt and other valuable materials are recovered.
Photo: SMS group: Demonstration plant in Hilchenbach, cathode or battery cell production.
The ultra-clean chemicals recovered during the hydrometallurgical process can be reused in cathode or battery cell production without further treatment.
Photo: SMS group: Setting up the demonstration plant in Hilchenbach
Assembly of the demonstration plant in Hilchenbach. The machine in the foreground comminutes the batteries and separates the material into plastic and metal fractions.

A win-win situation

Future customers will benefit from the modularity of the technology and the business model. Horst Krenn, Managing Director of Primobius, fully supports this approach: “We at Primobius strongly believe in flexibility and have positioned ourselves accordingly. We understand that companies using batteries in their products, battery-cell producers and the recycling industry have very different requirements. We are ready to support all of them – as plant engineers, project developers, plant operators and partners.”

In order for potential customers to make their own judgment of the technology, Primobius has erected an industrial-scale demonstration facility in Hilchenbach, Germany. Primobius will use this facility to demonstrate to companies interested in the technology how the process works and what performance potential it provides. It is planned to use the facility for commercial recycling of spent batteries at a later stage. Primobius will also benefit from the test runs on the demonstration plant, as they will generate new data that can be used to further optimize the process.

The location of the demonstration facility has been chosen with specific circumstances in mind: “Arguments in favor of Germany include the country’s central location within Europe and its good infrastructure, which is very beneficial in terms of logistics,” explains Dr. Hans Ferkel, CTO of SMS group. “We also expect a surge in the demand for recycling solutions in the years to come, as – assuming that the e-mobility trend will continue to boom – the first generation of end-of-life batteries will begin filling up the collection points, waiting to be recycled.” Therefore, the next logical step is already taking shape: the construction of a high-capacity, commercial-scale facility.

Primobius helps achieve sustainability targets

The reclaimed materials – lithium, nickel and cobalt, for example – are ultra-clean and ready for reuse in battery (cell) production without any further treatment.

Thanks to the two-stage configuration of the process – comminution and recovery – it is possible to set up hub-and-spoke systems of local and central facilities to maximize efficiency.

Recycled materials are a substitute for primary raw materials, the mining of which is significantly more CO2-intensive than recycling. At the same time, the operation of recycling facilities in Europe means that the materials come from ethically acceptable sources.

Comminution facilities near the battery collection points reduce the risk of fire and the risk of leaking hazardous substances.

Smart recycling helps to reach the CO2 break-even point in e-mobility sooner.

The energy-efficient hydrometallurgical process improves the CO2 balance of lithium-ion batteries, especially since no carbon-containing substances are combusted.

Good timing

Even today, Germany is in the lead in Europe as the country with the highest number of electric vehicles registered. German automakers have been making up ground in this field, launching more and more electric vehicle models recently. In parallel to this, we see production capacities for battery cells being established in Europe. Battery cell producers are in urgent need of lithium, nickel and cobalt supplies, which in the future shall come to an increasing degree from Europe-based recycling facilities. As without the availability of these metals recycled from spent batteries, it would be impossible for the automotive industry to meet its short-term production targets.

From all this we can expect a strong demand for recycling technologies. With the joint venture Primobius, we are well positioned to meet any requests from both carmakers and battery suppliers.

Actually, we have already received initial enquiries from cell manufacturers interested in experiencing live in Hilchenbach the performance capacity of the Primobius recycling process.

Logo: Primobius, Battery recycling without imits

The innovative technology from Primobius can close the last gap in the value-added battery production cycle, providing battery producers and the automotive industry a solid planning basis and long-term supply-chain security – and a potential competitive edge.

Cycle with individual steps: Innovative technology from Primobius to close the battery value cycle