Hungry for Gold – A new Approach to E-Waste Recycling

Gold loaded microbes formatted
microbes loaded with gold

Mint Innovation, a startup company from Auckland, New Zealand, recently reported having succeeded in recovering gold, palladium and copper from electronic waste by exposing the material to microbes with a taste for the three metals. I spoke with Ollie Crush, the company’s chief scientist, to learn more about this process.

“The overarching goal is to come up with a lower capex / opex way of recovering precious metals from electronic waste”, said Crush. “You could then have decentralized plants compared to smelters that process large scales of waste. The advantage is more certainty for the aggregator, shorter time frames on payment, more transparency and a higher return of value from what they are collecting.”

The microbes are fairly selective in what they digest. According to Crush, they collect more than 90% of the gold, palladium and copper contained in printed circuit boards (PCBs), over 60% of the total value of the feedstock. The team is still working on expanding the selection capability to extract more of the most valuable components.

Mint team formattedThe precious metals are being retrieved from the loaded microbes by ashing them, another step that is still being optimized. Crush points out that developments into process refinements, and developments into other metals, are still limited because of the small size of the business. Mint Innovation are currently working on setting up a pilot plant in Auckland that would be capable of processing about 200 metric tons of PCBs per year using a 5,000 liter tank, yielding approximately 40kg of gold. The project is partially funded but the company is still seeking capital for the US$ 4-5 million plant.

A full size plant will be able to handle 10 times the volume, which is when larger markets than New Zealand will be needed to fully utilize the technology.

 

Progress in EV Battery Recycling – Kinsbursky Brothers

DSC_8707Some of you may have seen the guest blog on Tesla’s battery recycling program I contributed to Michelle Lynch’s new “Enabled Future” website last month. There is always more to pieces like this than meets the eye as, usually, more time is spent on research than on the actual writing of a new report. Traditionally, Tesla has been quite transparent in such matters but a lot of time has passed since the conception and launch of their “Gigafctory” in Nevada. Apparently, the company is working on novel approaches to the topic that they don’t want to see released prematurely.

So I contacted Kinsbursky Brothers to check if the information provided by Tesla in 2008 is still accurate. Daniel Kinsbursky, Vice President at Kinsbursky Brothers, kindly answered a set of questions I submitted.

gm-ev1Kinsbursky has been in business since the mid 1980’s, focusing on battery recycling from the start. Their first exposure to electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling came in the late 1990’s, when the lead acid batteries from General Motor’s iconic “EV1” had to be recycled. The company subsequently expanded into Li-ion by becoming the largest shareholder in Retriev Technologies with locations in Lancaster, OH, and Trail, BC (Canada).

With respect to the company’s overall business vis-a-vis the recycling of Tesla batteries, Kinsbursky explained: “We offer our battery recycling services to a number of different brands, across multiple applications beyond just EV and hybrid vehicles. For instance, we receive a significant volume of Li-Ion batteries from consumer applications, such as cell phones, laptops/tablets, power tools, and really almost any modern device that requires mobile power. That being said, we expect the largest growth area for our recycling services to be in the automotive sector.”

As a privately held company, Kinsbursky does not share information on recycling volumes or revenues. They did, however, confirm seeing a significant increase in EV batteries year over year, and expect volumes to increase at much higher rates once more of the Li-ion powered EV and hybrid vehicles reach the end of their life cycles. Kinsbursky points out that a recent market study estimates the worldwide Li-ion battery recycling market volume to be US$ 1.78 billion (in 2017) with a projection to reach US$ 23.7 billion by 2030.

Their process for battery recycling hasn’t changed significantly from what I described in my blog. However, Kinsbursky points out that “our goal is to be the first company to commercialize a battery-to-battery recycling process, whereby materials like lithium and cobalt recovered from a used battery can be reutilized in a new battery without any additional intermediary steps.”

With respect to the amount of material sent to landfill (25% according to Tesla’s 2008 blog), the good news is that this has been reduced to below 10%. Kinsbursky explained: “The amount of materials sent to the landfill from our process is largely dependent on the feedstock. Our process is capable of recovering all battery metals, including cobalt, nickel and lithium. Nevertheless, many battery packs utilize different grades of plastic and separator materials, which can consist of mixed quality grades of little recycling value in this commingled form. This is typically less than 10% of the battery mass. … It should also be noted that 10-15% of the battery mass is an electrolyte solvent which is digested within our process.”

Asked to comment on the pros and cons of their recycling method compared to ultra-high temperature incineration, Kinsbursky responded: “There are two common methodologies for the recycling and management of lithium ion batteries. hydrometallurgical and pyrometallurgical. Umicore’s process utilizes pyrometallurgical. Each type of system has its own benefits and deficiencies. As you stated, the UHT process would be more energy demanding than a hydrometallurgical process, and the hydrometallurgical system would be more forgiving in the type of material that can be processed.

Our current physical/mechanical process removes any electrical hazards and shreds and separates the batteries into usable commodity feeds. We are essentially a pre-processor for pyrometallurgical downstream processors. The advantage of our process is that it separates the metals into more concentrated feeds for the pyrometallurgical processes, thereby increasing efficiency and energy usage. Our long-term goal of producing battery materials will utilize additional hydrometallurgical processes on the back-end of our existing processes. We think over-all this will provide a lower energy pathway to closing the loop on lithium ion battery recycling when compared to the pyrometallurgical route.”

In conclusion, a lot of progress has been made, and new developments (David Kinsbusrsky did not want to comment on these) are on the horizon. Closed loops, or nearly closed recycling loops, seem possible provided that manufacturers and recyclers continue working together towards this goal.

Tech Metals – “Unstoppable”

Earlier this week, I visited my friends at Kitco News for a casual chat. They couldn’t help themselves but turn it into an article on Technology Metals with a slant on Rhodium. Click here to read it on the Kitco News website.

Metallic Hydrogen – a new Era in Fuel Storage?

Since the Hindenburg disaster, hydrogen has been known more for its risks than its uses as a fuel component. In its liquid form it has of course been used as rocket fuel, and more recently it has made an entrance as a potential alternative to lithium-ion batteries in cars. Not only is lithium-ion not free from hazards itself, the batteries also add more weight and volume to a device than a tank full of H2. Setting up a supply infrastructure remains an issue, and storage risks make people uncomfortable.

Diamond Anvil

What if hydrogen could be produced in its metallic form? A metal, easy and safe to transport and store? What if this metal could be readily re-converted to its liquid state as needed to be used in fuel cells? A vision of a distant future, perhaps, but professor Isaac Silvera of Harvard University claims to have just taken the first step, the creation of metallic hydrogen. I had a very interesting conversation with him, the product of which was just published on Kitco News. Here is the link: http://www.kitco.com/commentaries/2017-03-21/Metallic-Hydrogen-a-New-Area-in-Hydrogen-Storage.html

 

Cobalt – from secret ingredient to superstar

Cobalt started coming into focus when the industry became aware of its crucial importance to lithium-ion technology. Since then, several Tech Metal Insider articles on Kitco News have dealt with the subject:

Cobalt – the secret ingredient in lithium ion batteries: https://bodoalbrecht.com/2015/10/02/cobalt-the-secret-ingredient-in-lithium-ion-batteries/

BYD (Build your Dreams) – cobalt vs iron oxide technology: https://bodoalbrecht.com/2016/04/28/byd-disrupting-the-markets-for-lithium-and-cobalt/

Ethical concerns on cobalt mining raised by Amnesty International: https://bodoalbrecht.com/2016/10/10/cobalt-prices-on-the-rise-amidst-ethical-concerns/

mitch-smithThe latter topic in particular raised the question of ethical alternatives for cobalt mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that just declared it had to postpone democratic elections for lack of funds. One company promising such an alternative is Global Energy Metals of Vancouver, Canada. Mitchell Smith, president and CEO of GEM who is also a very active supporter of alternative energy in social media, told me more about the company and its plans. Click here to read the interview on Kitco News.

 

Cobalt Prices On The Rise Amidst Ethical Concerns

Tesla Model X Launch 2015-09-29As predicted a while ago, the world’s insatiable hunger for battery materials is beginning to affect prices, in a big way. The increase may not hurt small electronic devices as much but it will definitely be felt by buyers of electric vehicles which employ large amounts of the metal.

This good news turns sour for at least some investors, though, in light of new reports about unsafe conditions and child labor in the mines that produce cobalt. Please click here to read my full report on the topic, which was published by Kitco News today.

Emergency Offshore Summit in Panama

With the “Live and Invest Overseas” conference just finished, the next event is already on the horizon. Lief Simon’s “Emergency Offshore Summit” is aimed at investors worried about the political future of the United States after the elections in November. One way or another, instability may be a result, and the conference focuses on legal precautions private investors have at their disposal to hedge against such effects.

The conference will be from October 24-26 in Panama City, Panama, and I will be speaking on two topics: physical investments in strategic metals, and in precious metals. Let’s not make it one of these:

To register for the event please click here. Looking forward to seeing you in Panama!