WA company recovering battery-grade vanadium from waste hailed by EU as on ‘cusp’ of major player status

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A project boasting a waste-free, carbon negative process to recover “extremely” high-purity vanadium from slag, a steel industry waste product, is moving forward with two Western Australian companies at its helm.

The Vanadium Recovery Project, as it’s called, is kicking off in Pori, Finland, as part of a 50:50 joint venture between Critical Metals and Neometals, both of which are based in Western Australia. Last week, an open day was held at the site, on Finland’s west coast, for which the companies signed their lease. With pilots and pre-feasibility studies completed and looking promising, the full feasibility study for the project is due in June.

Map of the Pori site, with ‘VRF’ standing for Vanadium Recovery Facility.

Critical Metals

It has already garnered support from the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s (EIT) raw materials department, a body of European Union, which labelled the project “innovative” adding that it would be “significant” for securing energy independence in Europe.

Vanadium has been deemed a critical raw material by the European Commission, promising superior energy densities for batteries. It is at the heart of long duration energy storage solution, vanadium redox flow batteries, and is increasingly being eyed for next-generation lithium-vanadium cells for electric vehicles. On Monday, Neometals actually invested US$500,000 (AU$665,000) US-based startup Tyfast, which is developing a long-life, fast-charging lithium battery with a proprietary vanadium-based anode technology.

Approximately 75% of the world’s vanadium supply comes from China, Russia and South Africa – and given the materials growing applications coupled with deteriorating global relationships, battery players are scrambling to diversify supply chains.

The Vanadium Recovery Project

“We’re going to be producing vanadium from a waste material [slag] that’s currently got next to no value, it’s a problem for the producers, and we’re not going to have any waste generation in the process – all the byproducts from this are going to be put into some kind of application,” Neometals’ General Manager for Metallurgy, Research and Development, David Robinson, told pv magazine Australia. 

The lease for the site in Pori was signed last week

Critical Metals/Tomi Glad

“So we’ve solved a waste problem, we’re making a high purity vanadium that’s going to go into high value chemicals or batteries for the future… and we’re actually taking 50 – 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into our process, where most refineries and operations would stick carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Robinson added.

“It’s a true circular economy,” Neometals’ lead for the project and its Chief Development Officer, Darren Townsend, said.

The project is the second major materials recovery venture for Neometals, which officially opened its commercial 10 tonne per day lithium-ion battery recycling plant in Hilchenbach, Germany with partner SMS Group just yesterday. The grand opening was attended by Australia’s Ambassador to Germany, Philip Green, who then jetted over to Berlin to witness Fortescue Future Industries inking a deal to become Europe’s largest green hydrogen supplier later that night.

The “very neat little bit of chemistry” underpinning the project

Robinson is behind the unique vanadium extraction method at the heart of this project, though he is quick to point out that he can’t take credit for inventing carbonate chemistry. “I just stumbled across the application for it, that’s all,” he said. “You just needed the right crazy squirrel to find the nut.”

Crucially, the project’s chemical “sweet spot,” as Robinson puts it, is sodium carbonate, which has enabled the use of carbon dioxide as a reagent. Just one proton away from sodium bicarbonate (baking powder), McManus described the process as “essentially [using] glorified soda water.”

Robinson, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, wasn’t taken with this description, though he agreed the compound was a “nice safe reagent.” 

Why sodium carbonate is a sweet spot, Robinson explained, is because the carbonate gets used up in the leech while the sodium remains, allowing the addition of carbon dioxide (CO2) through which you can remake the carbonate molecule. “So the carbon dioxide bubbles in, makes carbonate, the carbonate reacts with the calcium, and in that process you liberate and make available the vanadium,” Robinson said.

“It’s very neat little bit of chemistry.”

Critical Metals and Neometals team on site in Pori, Finland.

Critical Metals/Tomi Glad

It appears this basic chemical trick, over which a family of patents are progressing having already been lodged in the EU, hasn’t yet been deployed for this promising application.

 “To my knowledge, there’s no one else using a green alkaline method to recover the vanadium out of steel stockpiles,” McManus told pv magazine Australia. 

The process does away with the need for high temperatures and pressures as well, minimising the project’s energy expenditure and adding to its green credentials.

Examinations of the Vanadium Recovery Project’s carbon lifecycle have found it to be slightly carbon negative, the team said, with supporter EIT Raw Materials saying it will save 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 compared to conventional vanadium mining over a decade. 

Using CO2 as a reagent “absolutely” opens the project up to the potential of carbon trading, which is far more developed in Europe. “We’re already lowest quartile costs for the project anyway, so we haven’t factored in any potential benefits [of carbon trading] into the project,” Townsend said. “So it’s all upsides.”

Vanadium from slag

Despite coming from an abundant waste product, slag, the by-product of smelting ores and used metals, the green alkaline method is recovering battery-grade purities of vanadium pentoxide, V₂O₅.

“All the work that we’ve done from a bench-scale mini pilot and a full scale pilot recently is all being found at 99.5% pure,” Robinson said.

Neometals’ Chairman Steven Cole shaking hands with Mayor of Pori, Aino-Maija Luukkonen. To her right is Jouko Hautamäki, Director of Economic Development and Growth for the City of Pori.

Critical Metals/Tomi Glad

Currently the method’s recovery rate is sitting at around 75%, a figure which is primarily dictated by the mineralogy of the slag, he added. While the project is kicking off Finland, where Critical Metals has an offtake agreement for around two million tonnes of slag, it has also put its foot on two stockpiles in Sweden. Both of these stockpiles have been drilled, tested and found to work. 

“I wouldn’t say [the alkaline method] is going to work on every single steel slag around the world, there’s certain requirements on when it’s going to work, but there’s certainly scaleability opportunity,” Townsend said.

Process generates ‘no waste’

Three things come out of the plant: vanadium, sodium sulphate, and a stabilised residue for which Robinson says there are a number of ‘promising’ chemical applications under development, especially in the construction industry. In fact, Finnish building company Betolar last week entered into an agreement with the project to potentially offtake the byproduct.

This puts the Vanadium Recovery Project on track for selling everything it generates. “Processing waste, generating no waste, creating a high value product, and carbon negative – it sounds like a good idea,” Robinson said.

Project journey

The project was initially developed by Critical Metals, which had an ongoing relationship with nordic steelmakers. With personnel based in Scandinavia, Critical Metals put its foot on the opportunity, taking it to its 20% stakeholder Neometals to deliver the project using its chemistry knowhow. 

Neometals is now charged with pulling the vanadium out using its technology, which will then earn it the right to a 50:50 joint venture.

Project structure

Critical Metals

If everything continues going to plan, Critical Metals and Neometals will form a separate company to run the Vanadium Recovery Project which is aiming to be in production by the end of 2024.

EIT Raw Materials appears confident, saying in a media release on Friday that Critical Metals and Neometals are “on the cusp of becoming a major producer of vanadium in Europe.”

Europe ‘desperate’ for vanadium, especially the green kind

To put it mildly, Europe – which is not rich in vanadium like Australia – is extremely eager to secure reliable supplies of the critical material for its burgeoning battery industries. 

Neometals’ Jeremy McManus said already the Vanadium Recovery Project’s product is proving popular. “The reason we’re enthused is because we’re actually getting people approaching us far earlier than you would with other commodities because they’re so desperate to secure green vanadium units,” he said. “Particularly because they don’t exist in volume in Europe.”

Shareholders will be thanking Neometals for five years ago pivoting away from virgin mining to move towards materials recovery. Its stock price has increased more than 430% within that period.

ASX

“The environmentally friendly recovery of metals and minerals from by-products will be a very important source of raw materials for Europe,” Olli Salmi, Director of Innovation Hub Baltic Sea at EIT Raw Materials said. “Further innovations, such as those achieved in this project, are necessary to secure the supply.”

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