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Sustainable recovery and domestic production of strategic metals in Europe

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The European energy transition hinges on electrification, driven by clean technologies that heavily rely on metals categorized as critical and strategic raw materials. JRC’s Foresight Study, forecasting material demand until 2050 and assessing supply chain dependencies, underscores the EU’s imperative to diversify and bolster resilient metal sourcing. Recommendations stress the need for Europe to cultivate internal capacities in mining, refining, and processing materials essential for battery production.

In the upcoming years, demand for lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) will surge, primarily propelled by the automotive sector and complemented by energy storage systems (ESS) crucial for renewable energy deployment. Compared to current material supplies, significant increases are projected for graphite (45% by 2030, 85% by 2050) and lithium (100% by 2030, potentially 170% by 2050). By 2030, cobalt (Co) demand for batteries is expected to represent nearly 60% of the current global supply, decreasing to 40% by 2050 due to the shift towards nickel-rich batteries (source: Foresight Study, JRC).

Against a backdrop of geopolitical instability and reliance on dominant nations for critical minerals, the recently enacted Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) advocates for domestically sourced recycled metals to reduce dependence on imports and single-source vulnerabilities. With clear goals to fortify the EU’s capabilities across the value chain, CRMA mandates that by 2030, EU processing capacity should cover at least 40% of domestic annual consumption of strategic materials.

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SINTEF researchers explore molten salt chlorination for metal recovery

Researchers at SINTEF have been investigating the recovery of lithium (Li), nickel (Ni), and cobalt (Co) from secondary raw materials like black mass, as well as from primary resources such as spodumene concentrate. Employing molten salt chlorination, the SINTEF team explores this method as an alternative to state-of-the-art hydrometallurgy.

Experiments were conducted on three types of input materials: spodumene concentrate and two variants of black mass (BM). One BM sample, with an unknown battery chemistry and pre-treatment, while the second BM sample recovered from an NMC material, underwent pyrolysis pre-treatment.

Researchers studied the thermal expansion and melting behavior of spodumene concentrate, achieving a 100% Li yield using chlorine gas in a mixture of calcium chloride, sodium chloride, and potassium chloride at 727°C. Experiments on black mass materials indicated the highest chlorination yields from uncalcined material (Li 64%, Co and Ni 22-24%, Cu 83%, Mn 49%) in a lithium chloride and potassium chloride mixture at 470°C.

These findings were presented by SINTEF representatives at the Joint Symposium on Molten Salts in November 2023.

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