First Cobalt studying recycled batteries as feedstock

First Cobalt Corp. has begun a study of black mass material from recycled batteries as a supplemental source of feed for its hydrometallurgical refinery located at Temiskaming Shores, about 500 kilometres north of Toronto.

The company believes it could recover cobalt, nickel, copper and potentially lithium and manganese, in addition to planned cobalt production from primary feed. Discussions are underway with several producers of black mass.

First Cobalt is currently planning a refinery expansion project that will result in annual production of 5,000 tonnes of cobalt contained in a battery-grade cobalt sulfate. Production is projected to begin at the end of 2022.

The refinery currently recovers nickel, copper and cobalt. The study study will use these processes and existing infrastructure.

The study will consider two scenarios. First it will look at existing equipment currently installed at the refinery. Before 2015, the existing flow sheet could process 4,200 tonnes of feed each year to produce cobalt carbonate, nickel carbonate and a copper intermediate product. This scenario will utilize existing infrastructure and equipment that is not required for the cobalt sulfate expansion process that is currently underway.

The second phase will consider additional equipment required to take all material streams to a battery-grade product. This scenario will look for opportunities where lithium, manganese, aluminum and graphite may become revenue streams.

In each phase, the company wants to use existing equipment and infrastructure to the greatest extent possible. Incremental capital costs to modify processes to treat black mass and recover other battery raw materials are expected to be substantially lower than a greenfield project.

Hydrometallurgical refining

The company believes hydrometallurgical refining will provide higher yields at a lower cost and at significantly lower energy intensity, compared to traditional pyrometallurgical facilities.

Closed loop recycling of lithium-ion batteries will serve the electric vehicle market in North America and Europe and in the short term will benefit from higher availability of cobalt-rich consumer electronics.

“This initiative advances our vision of producing the world’s most sustainable cobalt while broadening the potential revenue streams to include other battery materials,” said Trent Mell, president and CEO.

“Automakers are looking for a closed loop supply chain for their batteries and the proposed recycling process presents a solution to move to a circular model for recycling end-of-life batteries and battery manufacturing scrap.

Lithium-ion battery recycling

End-of-life lithium-ion batteries are initially discharged before being disassembled. Battery cells are then typically subject to a mechanical process involving crushing, sorting and sieving to produce a powder substance referred to as “black mass”.

Black mass contains a variety of valuable metals including cobalt, nickel, copper, lithium, manganese, aluminum and graphite. Outside China, the predominant means of recovering metal from black mass is through an energy-intensive pyrometallurgical process that involves calcining, roasting and smelting.

Metal recovery from black mass through a hydrometallurgical process such as that owned by First Cobalt, where metals are dissolved and separated, is more efficient and environmentally friendlier than a pyrometallurgical process.  The hydrometallurgical process is expected to become the preferred approach to recycling as electric vehicle penetration rates continue to climb.

The First Cobalt refinery

First Cobalt owns North America’s only permitted primary cobalt refinery. The facility was permitted in 1996 and operated intermittently until 2015, producing cobalt, nickel and silver products.

In May 2020, the company completed an engineering study that confirmed the refinery’s suitability to treat cobalt hydroxide at an expanded throughput to produce battery grade cobalt sulfate. Feed arrangements have been concluded with Glencore AG and IXM SA, a fully owned subsidiary of CMOC.

In December 2020, the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario announced a joint $10 million investment, which will help accelerate the commissioning and expansion. Once operational, the Refinery will produce 5,000 tonnes of cobalt per year and will be North America’s only producer of cobalt sulfate for the electric vehicle market.

First Cobalt owns the Iron Creek cobalt project in Idaho, and controls significant silver and cobalt assets in the Canadian Cobalt Camp, including more than 50 past-producing mines.