African European scientific partnership to tackle future critical materials shortages

As part of the Long-Term Joint EU-African Union Research and Innovation Partnership on Renewable Energy, a collaborative African European project RESTART dedicated to the implementation of a full value chain for recycling end-of-life lithium-ion batteries and photovoltaic solar panels has begun.
Melted metals
Photo: Recovered valuable precious and base metals. Aalto University, Eren Öztekin.

The shift towards the circular economy and expansion of transport electrification has caused an increasing demand for electrical vehicles and renewable energy. Lithium-ion batteries are becoming the state-of-the art energy storage technology, and they are increasingly applied within the automotive industry as well as renewable energy generation. The global Li-ion battery market size, considering only electrical vehicles applications, is estimated to more than double from the current level by 2025.

Simultaneously, there has been continuous growth in the integration of renewable energy sources, such as the marked increase in production of ever more efficient solar panels. These developing technologies will result firstly in supply issues as there is a growing need of critical materials (Co, Si, Ni, Al, Li, Mn) and secondly in environmental issues as the batteries and solar panels are considered as hazardous waste containing components that harm health and water resources and may even result in spontaneous fires during long term storage.

‘It is important to plan in advance what to do with, for example, solar panels when they reach the end of life after around 15 years of use’, says Benjamin P. Wilson, Staff Scientist of Raw Materials, Metallurgy and Electrochemistry at the School of Chemical Engineering, Aalto University. ‘We cannot just throw away valuable and scarce materials, which can also cause environmental issues. Together with our African scientific colleagues, we are searching for answers to these world-wide challenges that we face together and aim to find best practices for the metals’ recovery processes.’  

RESTART will tackle key areas of the value chain including collection, disassembling and characterization of battery and solar panel wastes, sustainable technology development and scale-up of environmentally friendly metals recovery processes. The aim is also to develop a practical business plan and assess the ecological impacts of these technological advances, which will serve as an example of successful sustainable technology development to the larger scale via collaborative African European scientific and economic partnerships.

This project supports the purpose of Aalto University which is to shape a sustainable future and to excel and make breakthroughs in and across science, art, technology, and business. Aalto, through the Department of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, is a world leading research and development organisation working in different topics related to sustainability, such as waste valorisation, circular economy, hydrometallurgy, batteries, and electrochemistry. It will participate in this project by providing support and expertise for recovered materials analysis and process-led life cycle assessments.

This research is facilitated by complementary expertise from top-level research institutions in EU and Africa. It is funded by the Academy of Finland and the European Union, among others.

Together with our African scientific colleagues, we are searching for answers to world-wide challenges that we face together.

Benjamin P. Wilson
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