My Investment Takes: Green Li-Ion & the future of batteries

27 Apr 2022

My Investment Takes is a weekly dive into the startups I find the most innovative & interesting.

How often do you use lithium-ion batteries?
Not a question you might think about very often, or know the answer to. Chances are, quite a few. Let me rephrase the question then. Do you own a smartphone? A tablet? A computer? A PlayStation 5? If your answer is yes to any of those, your answer to the first question is “very often”.
Lithium-ion batteries are all around us. Every year, we take it for granted that dozens of new smartphone models are introduced, hundreds of laptops without a hitch. The market is currently valued at $46.4 billion and is projected to increase elevenfold by 2030, demonstrating the enormous demand ahead.
Despite their omnipresence, things are about to boom again for the lithium-battery market. Why? Electric Vehicles. EV’s are becoming more popular, more produced, and more governmentally endorsed following the Paris Agreement’s mandate to decarbonise our societies.
Unfortunately, these glossy EV’s are not as green as we’d like them to be. In extreme cases, they can even be worse than gasoline cars. And our omnipresent friends the Lithium-ion batteries are contributing to this: they are neither easy to produce nor reusable. 

Enter Green Li-ion!
Green Li-ion is a Singapore-based start-up whose patented deep technology enables businesses to ‘rejuvenate’ lithium-ion batteries through scalable and efficient recycling of each precious component. The process would make batteries – and therefore all devices utilizing them – greener, whilst reducing the operational cost of the companies producing them. 

Some Fundamentals

What is a lithium-ion battery anyway?

Lithium-ion or Li-ion batteries store electrical energy. They are currently at the cutting-edge of energy storage technology. Compared to their rivals, Li-ions have a higher storage capacity, longer lifespan, and the fastest charging time.
In essence, Li-ion batteries are made of multiple individual battery cells wired together with a Battery Management System (BMS) while the cells themselves are made of the cathode, the anode, electrolyte, and a separator. See the schematic below for more details. 

Let’s take it back to high school for a minute, if your revision for end of year exams didn’t stick as well as your physics teacher hoped it might. Cathodes receive electrons (the green bubbles) from an anode, and in the case of Li-ion batteries, this transaction occurs whilst submerged in an electrolyte solution. Or, if high-school physics really didn’t go well for you, you know that + and - you see on ordinary batteries? Energy travels down the – to the + as the battery depletes and from + to - when you’re charging a battery.
Now, what are these batteries made of?
As the name suggests, a fair amount of Lithium. Lithium is extremely important as it is a metal that has the lowest standard reduction potential, which in essence means it is the easiest to become oxidized and lose electrons, starting an electrochemical reaction that produces electricity. Here is a rapid breakdown of the essential components:

  • Cathode: Lithium Cobalt Oxide (LiCoO2) or Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt oxide (LiNiMnCoO2), or Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminum (LiNiCoAlO2)
  • Anode: Carbon-based material, usually graphite
  • Electrolyte: Lithium salt in an organic solvent

Where do they come from?

In 2017, 32 countries accounted for all global production of key materials:

  • Lithium: Australia (44%), Chile (34%), Argentina (13%)
  • Natural graphite: China (67%), India (13%), Brazil (8%)
  • Nickel: Philippines (11%), Canada (10%), Russia (9%), Australia (9%)
  • Manganese: South Africa (33%), China (16%), Australia (14%)
  • Cobalt: Democratic Republic of Congo (59%), Russia (5%), Australia (5%)

Please note that production and reserves are different. For example, Chile has the highest reserve of Lithium but comes second in production.

What is important to know is that each and every one of these materials has to be mined, refined, and transported before being fit for production. And due to the high concentration of certain materials, there is a high material supply chain risk as it could be used as leverage for geopolitical reasons in the future as the number of electronic devices and EV’s rises.
That’s without taking into account the horrific working conditions in some mines, in particular Cobalt which is principally mined in DRC. The lack of workers’ rights, paired with dangerous working conditions and a surge in demand have landed Cobalt mining the nickname ‘Blood Cobalt’. 

A growing issue

The point is: we can't go on like this indefinitely, Lithium is unsustainable. It drains already dwindling water supplies in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and after we’re done using them, 95% of lithium batteries are dumped in landfills.
Even the 5% that is recycled isn’t having a great time. Each battery is recycled by "shredding" them into small pieces after which we obtain "black mass", typically a blend of lithium, cobalt, and nickel present in distinct ratios. To go through the whole process, one requires a lot of energy and time whilst the materials extracted from the black mass also degrade. All in all, a lose-lose process.
While some organizations are looking for sustainable replacements, it won't happen in the short or middle term. Nobel Prize winner M. Stanley Wittingham himself said “it will be lithium for the next 10 to 20 years”.
We need a better system.

What I love

Something better is needed

In comes Green Li-ion.
They have developed a patented technology, the Multi-Cathode with its GLMC-1 control unit. As the name suggests, their technology specializes in recycling and producing ready-to-use cathode material (Cobalt, Lithium, Manganese, Nickel) faster, at a fraction of the cost, and in a sustainable way. According to their video, 2 tons of black mass can be processed every day through their closed-loop tech, the equivalent of 56,000 iPhone batteries. 
Another advantage is the flexibility of the technology: all types of batteries can be added at the same time, with no need to separate them. In many ways, they are reproducing what Lead-acid batteries (e.g. normal AAA) recyclers have perfected throughout the years: a closed-loop model that is efficient and quick. 
Green Li-ion is doing the same using co-precipitation – the process of 'carrying down' a specific material in a soluble, while leaving the other materials, effectively 'filtering' the soluble by taking one material down at a time. 

The path forward

The Founders, Dr Rezal Katal and Leon Farrant, are thinking big. After perfecting the technology in Singapore, they are about to open the company's first large scale system in the US, while waiting for approval in additional countries, namely Malaysia, the UK, Taiwan and India.
Green Li-ion has recently raised its $11.55 million Series A from EDP Ventures, Entrepreneur First, SOSV, Envisioning Partners, IS HOLDINGS LTD, MB Energy Partners, GS Holdings, TRIREC and Energy Revolution Ventures. This recently raised fund will of course help to scale their business globally. They have revealed that most of the $11.55 million raised will be dedicated to R&D and growing their team.
Their next goals involve being even faster and more efficient, as well as developing a next-generation machine which will also be able to produce pure metal sulphates and possibly expand the technology to solar panels.

The Questions I asked Leon Farrant

  • What would you say is the largest difference between your technology and your competitors'?
The most evident difference is that Green Li-ion is the only commercial solution that can take all types of Lithium-Ion battery black mass, mixed, without the need for time-consuming sorting that can be rejuvenated into multiple types of battery-grade cathode material 
  • Hydrogen batteries are hailed by some as the next natural step for EVs. Is Green Li-ion equipped to face such change?
Our GLMC technology is future-ready and validated to handle all future battery compounds coming to end of life within this decade. 
  • What are your priorities for the next 12 months? 
Demonstrate Commercial Operations – construction, commissioning and successful operations at first modular processing plants, producing battery-grade materials.
Expansion into European market – target sales into UK and Europe which are home to many of the world’s largest automakers and battery manufacturers.
Further research and development – to develop and pilot the next generation of Green Li-ion’s recycling products.

My Conviction

Green Li-ion has the potential to revolutionize how we produce and consume. We are buying and using more and more devices every year, whether they are EVs or smartphones, using Lithium-ion batteries, and everyday batteries simply get thrown out in a landfill.
We need an efficient solution that is scalable, won't skyrocket consumer prices and deter them from using low emission solutions (EVs). 
Green Li-ion is not the only company focused on recycling batteries, but the team is well-positioned to attain those objectives.
If you’re excited to check them out, take a look at their website, and leave a comment on this post if you have any thoughts or comments!

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