Australians use more than 400 million small (less then 1kg) batteries a year and less than three per cent of these are recycled. While the majority are alkaline, zinc-carbon and lead-acid types, the use of lithium-ion batteries is growing rapidly. A recent CSIRO report notes that Australia has one of the lowest collection rates in the OECD, with only two per cent of Australia's annual 3300 tonnes of lithium-ion battery waste being recycled. With this waste growing at 20 per cent per year and estimated to exceed 130,000 tonnes, the potential recoverable metal value could reach up to $3 billion by 2036.
Most of Australia's battery waste currently goes to landfill, leading to potential fires, environmental contamination and risk to public health. Of the batteries recovered, most are shipped off-shore for processing.
With over 18 years experience in resource recovery, Victorian based company PF Metals focuses on sustainable services to reduce waste to landfill.
Having already installed crushing and separating equipment for processing e-waste, PF Metals Director, Andrew Mackenzie, recognised an opportunity to use the same equipment for processing lithium and alkaline batteries. He set up Envirostream Australia in 2017 to provide local solutions for the safe recovery of battery waste and began processing a mixture of recovered batteries into several powder fractions, which could be sold to off-shore processors at a relatively low price.
The company initially worked with Swinburne University of Technology to establish the composition of the powder fractions produced. They were found to contain high levels of some valuable metals, but a process was required to extract them.
The next step was to identify and develop an economically viable process to extract metals with sufficient purity. Through an introduction to CSIRO's local Innovation Connections facilitator, the company received an Innovation Connections grant to support this work. Innovation Connections is a service offered by the Entrepreneurs' Programme, an initiative supported by the Australian Government. Professor M Akbar Rhamdhani, from Swinburne’s Fluid and Process Dynamics (FPD) Group, led the research carried out by Mr Muhamad Firdaus, with contributions from Dr Reiza Mukhlis.
The first project confirmed that the separation process could produce fractions with a promising level of valuable metals.
The success of the first project encouraged Envirostream to apply for a second Innovation Connections grant to allow further work with the team at Swinburne, with the aim of developing a commercial process for recovering zinc, zinc oxide, manganese, aluminium, copper, carbon, lithium, cobalt and steel through high temperature processing. These materials are of interest for manufacturing new batteries and also as inputs for steel production. The project showed that treatment of the battery waste under optimum conditions, followed by secondary processes, could allow the recovery of 95 per cent of these high value materials and be economically viable.
Envirostream has now employed a graduate materials engineer, supported with funding from an Innovation Connections Graduate Employment Grant, who will develop the process to the next stage. This should lead to commercial production with recovered batteries being converted back into high value materials for reuse in new batteries and steel making.