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Devon County Council: Commercially Recycling EV Batteries

Devon County Council have supported Altilitech through the Green Innovation Fund to scale-up their proprietary process for recycling electric vehicle (EV) batteries to a commercial operation. Verified by the University of Plymouth, the innovative method recovers over 95 per cent of the critical metals contained within spent batteries at a quality for reuse in new batteries. Altilitech operates under a circular economy model; retaining value in the local economy whilst reducing the toxic waste and emissions produced in mining.

The challenge

The transition to Net Zero is reliant on increased electrification, particularly in reducing emissions from road transport with the sale of new diesel and petrol cars prohibited from 2030. However, the critical metals used in EV batteries have a high environmental and social cost, as the mining of these metals is water intensive and destructive to natural landscapes. As the UK is short on these critical metals as a natural resource, it is dependent on global supply chains which puts our energy security at risk.

Whilst the switch from petrol and diesel to electric vehicles contributes to a reduction in carbon emissions, the negative environmental impacts associated with lithium-ion batteries also needs to be mitigated. This means we need to find methods of sourcing these critical metals that create less carbon and preserve natural habitats and prevent batteries at the end of their life going to landfill and generating toxic waste. Currently, any UK EV batteries that are recycled are sent overseas, which means that the value of the components leave the economy, and the UK has to store and transport hazardous waste materials for long periods of time.

In recognition of this challenge, the UK government published the first Critical Minerals Strategy in July 2022.

The solution

By recovering the critical metals and minerals within spent EV batteries to battery-grade quality, new lithium-ion batteries can be created with minimal need for additional mining. Through an ‘urban mining’ process where the existing materials within the UK supply chain can be reused, we can reduce our dependence on the global market and prevent further environmental destruction. Recovering these materials also stops the batteries going to landfill, reducing waste and improving efficient usage of available resources.

The scale-up of Altilitech Ltd’s recycling process to industrial scale will create a closed-loop supply chain, retaining both value and critical metals within the local economy. At a laboratory level, it has been proven that they can extract 95 per cent of the cathode metals at battery-grade quality, alongside non-metallic high value components, which combined means that 80 per cent of the value is recovered.

Altilitech’s method is more efficient than competitors and is the first of its kind in the UK recycling end-of-life EV batteries in a format that can be directly used in the manufacture of new EV cells. Having an industrial scale plant in the South West keeps these critical metals circulating in the local supply chain and enables other UK businesses operating in the production and end-of-life management of EV batteries to work in conjunction.

The impact

The Green Innovation Fund, a competitive grants process run as part of Devon County Council’s Economic Recovery and Growth Prospectus’ funding package, has supported Altilitech Ltd with £169,384 to pilot the UK’s first battery recycling facility. This includes capital funding to equip the plant with the necessary equipment to safely commence the process at a commercial scale and revenue funding to employ and train new staff. The project will directly support three new, high value roles in the area, alongside two apprenticeship opportunities for local young people. Providing jobs and training placements in the low carbon industry allows Devon to benefit from the expansion of the Net Zero economy and prepare for future skills requirements. By 2026, the company expects to have created 250 new roles and being able to recycle battery waste from over 150,000 electric vehicles.

The environmental benefits of the project are also significant with the amount of waste saved from landfill and the carbon emissions avoided set to grow exponentially over time. Within the project period and the first year of the demonstration plant being operational, Altilitech forecast that 250 batteries will be recycled, saving 2737 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. These support two core aims set out in the Devon Carbon Plan: to reduce emissions from greenhouse gases and use resources in a more circular way.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The seed funding obtained by Altilitech Ltd (a subsidiary of Altilium Metals) from the Green Innovation Fund has been leveraged to submit successful bids for additional funding. They have received funding to advance their research and further scale up their operations through both Innovate UK and the Automotive Transformation Fund. These grants will enable to the project to continue beyond the Green Innovation Fund and to improve and implement their process.

Lessons learned

The challenge of running a fund focused on supporting innovative businesses, which are often start-ups with few employees and minimal capital, as a local authority has been significant. There is an inherent risk involved in funding these green start-ups and projects need space to adapt during delivery as unexpected opportunities and issues arise. This requires flexibility in the project and fund management.

However, Devon County Council has been able to support dynamic and exciting projects which could not have been funded elsewhere. The UK Government’s Net Zero Strategy highlights the importance of innovation in reducing carbon emissions and preserving our natural environment, and for Devon to benefit from a transition to a Net Zero economy we need to be championing businesses that can help us achieve our environmental targets and ambitions. It is possible for local authorities to support these activities and businesses without sacrificing the important assurances and processes required to ensure safe usage of public money.

The Green Innovation Fund was massively oversubscribed, receiving 94 Expressions of Interest requesting over £10,000,000 from a total funding pot of £750,000. From these projects, only 13 were invited to submit a full application, with those then undergoing a formal appraisal and economic assessment to get expert input on the strongest schemes to fund. In the end, 7 projects were successful recipients of the grant. The huge number of applications demonstrates the scale and strength of the low carbon industry in Devon and the desire and commitment of local businesses to contribute to the shift towards Net Zero.