Battery technology is an essential component of the energy transition and push for electric vehicle adoption. But from downstream supply of raw materials to end of life disposal, there are various challenges when it comes to ensuring battery technology is a clean and green option. SIMON SHEPHERDSON talks to Neometals, a company at the forefront of reclaiming and recycling battery minerals.  

Electric vehicle batteries have a warrantied lifespan of around eight years.

That means as the uptake of EVs continues to grow globally, disposal or repurposing of end-of-life batteries poses an increasing challenge.

However, with the right processing technology, the critical minerals contained within those batteries – including lithium – can be reclaimed and reused.

That is the driver for Neometals Limited (ASX:NMT), a company focused on downstream production of critical minerals and processes that support decarbonisation.

The Perth-based former traditional mining company, which sold out of its Mount Marion lithium joint venture in 2019, has developed technologies and partnerships to recycle and reclaim essential battery minerals from spent lithium-ion batteries and steel manufacturing slag piles. And the company’s focus is on doing so in clean and green ways.

In the two years since Neometals last spoke to The Yield, the company has progressed its flagship lithium battery recycling project in Germany to launch a shredding and beneficiation plant that is operating in a JV as a going concern, taking feedstock from clients and breaking batteries down into various components. Alongside that, the second stage to the technology is being demonstrated with a pilot-scale refinery which is running batch trials for existing and potential customers.

Partnership approach

The recycling business, Primobius GmbH, is a joint venture with German company SMS group, a leading supplier and builder of metallurgical plant. A dedicated battery recycling and refining facility is also being built for Mercedes-Benz, which plans to develop its own vertically integrated battery manufacturing business to power its electric vehicles.

According to General Manager – Commercial and Investor Relations Jeremy McManus, the partnership model is one of the successful elements that Neometals learned from its mining days, developing the Mount Marion lithium project in partnership with Mineral Resources and Ganfeng. And it’s a model that’s being repeated with a second but larger-scale battery recycling opportunity in Canada, a vanadium recovery project in Finland, and an innovative lithium refining process being commercialised with a major chemical company in Portugal.

“With regards to battery recycling, our approach is to find the partners first, then we secure the feedstock, we don’t have to transport materials as far and move around to different waste aggregation sites, and we avoid dealing with hazardous materials and cross-border logistics,” Jeremy said.

“Given the large addressable market, the scale-up opportunity is significant and we aim to embed ourselves in the supply chain early to support those with regulatory commitments over big end of life volumes.”

Investor interest

Neometals completed a second listing on London’s AIM earlier this year, providing the company with a way to capitalise on investor interest in its European projects. It also trades on the OTC in the US and various German bourses, providing further access to investors in markets that understand the value of “urban mining” to reclaim valuable commodities.

According to Jeremy, UK and European investors have responded favourably.

“AIM investors see a unique offering because they have limited opportunities to get multiple exposures to a range of battery minerals produced sustainably,” he said.

“And in Europe and the UK they are more acutely aware of the supply chain constraints as well. There’s a lot of motivation to domestically source some of these materials required to meet aspirations for net zero targets and recycling objectives.”

From an ASX perspective, Jeremy says shareholders are becoming excited with Primobius having commercial  battery recycling operations and the relationship with Mercedes-Benz. While the vanadium recovery project is still some way from operating, recent environmental approval for a recovery plant to be constructed in Pori, Finland is bringing that project into people’s sights.

Market conditions

While Neometals has seen some softening in its share price in recent months, it mirrors the situation across most sectors. And it’s not something that impacts the company’s continued development plans.

“The market is challenging but does not change the fundamentals of our business,” Jeremy said.

“We’re continuing to move forward with our plans and through our partnering model, all our projects are co-funded.

“Neometals is the technology provider for Mercedes, and we are collaborating to build a recycling plant. This provides great affirmation to the market regarding the veracity of the Primobius business model. We’re also finalising a cost study on the refining part of the process, plus we’re looking at a JV to do the same thing with a Canadian company but on a larger scale.”

There is already a conditional slag supply agreement in place with Scandinavian steel producer SSAB for the vanadium recovery project and Jeremy says the next step will be to finalise the agreement, continue studies with Neometals’ partners, then determine when to take preliminary carriage of some of the feedstock.

Next steps

Neometals’ 70 per cent-owned subsidiary RAM, of which Mineral Resources holds the remaining 30 per cent, has developed a proprietary process to produce lithium hydroxide from lithium chloride solutions using electrolysis to avoid costly and carbon intensive reagents.

RAM entered into a binding cooperation agreement last year with Portugal’s largest chemical producer, Bondalti. The agreement focuses on co-funding of evaluation activities required for a decision to form a joint venture to construct and operate a lithium refinery at Bondalti’s existing chlor-alkali operations in Portugal.

“It’s an ongoing process and we’re moving through the stages of shoring up the process and getting through the feasibility stages,” Jeremy said.

“But again, we’ve got a partner that’s co-funding everything and has a large, operational site in Portugal so it’s reduced risk and progressing at a good pace with commercialisation objectives in mind.”

Neometals also holds a legacy asset in the Barrambie titanium-vanadium project in Western Australia, which hosts the world’s second highest-grade hard rock titanium mineral resource and a high-grade vanadium resource.

The Company recently announced completion of a Class 4 Pre-Feasibility Study for production of titanium (ilmenite) and iron-vanadium concentrate at Barrambie. The PFS results confirm the viability of commercialising the project with potential to supply in excess of 500,000tpa of high-quality ilmenite in the first 10 years.

Pursuant to an MoU with potential offtake partner Jiuxing Titanium Materials, Neometals is now targeting a binding cornerstone offtake agreement.

While that project sits slightly outside the company’s core focus of commercialising its various green-tech projects, it still hosts high-demand, critical minerals and good revenue prospects for Neometals.

But for Jeremy, the big opportunities lie in the recycling and reclamation projects.

“I don’t think we need to take completely new projects on board and continually chase external growth,” he said.

“It’s not like traditional mining where you typically have to keep drilling or acquire new tenements. These projects are more organic and self-fulfilling because of the fact we’re developing them where the feedstock is tied in partnership with those businesses that need the materials we produce.”