Battery metals traceability project launched to enhance sustainability of industry

2nd June 2020 By: Donna Slater - Creamer Media Chief Photographer and Senior Contributing Editor

Finland-based research, development and innovation organisation VTT says the success of electric vehicles (EVs) may be determined by production methods and information on the origins of battery materials in the future.

VTT and the Geological Survey of Finland GTK, there, have launched a battery materials tracing platform – the Battrace project.

The Battrace project focuses on the traceability of battery materials and the production processes by which metals are extracted from ore and refined into high-quality raw materials for battery material manufacturers.

The aim is to develop an ecologically and economically sustainable production chain.

VTT recently launched the three-year project with its industrial partners to promote the sustainable production methods and traceability of battery materials, which offers what they describe as a “promising starting point for tracing the origin by the fingerprint conserved in the metals”, which may directly tell where the metals were mined. The unique fingerprint of metals directly indicates the mine of origin.

Geological Survey of Finland post-doctoral researcher Quentin Dehaine says the fingerprint may also indicate the share of recycled metals, which may become important at the phase when battery metals return to circulation in significant proportions.

“In the project, we examine the mineralogical and geochemical fingerprints of ore and their conservation from ore to product.”

When examining transport-related emissions, VTT notes that EVs using renewable electricity “undoubtedly represent a step in the direction of sustainability”.

However, the organisation also points out that some of the metals used in EV batteries have been produced at the “cost of flagrant compromises on employee safety”.

At the moment, those buying or manufacturing EVs cannot verify the origin of the batteries used in those vehicles, notes VTT, adding that the same applies to computers and telephones.

The Battrace project will examine methods by which production chains can be monitored and certified in both the metals industry and other sectors.

Another method supporting the tracing of metals is a fingerprint unique to the ore from a specific region, which is expected to be conserved in metals throughout the processing chain. The fingerprint refers to, for example, atom-level observations made on the composition of materials. Such features as the various forms of metal atoms, isotopes, may reveal its origin.

VTT Battrace project leader Päivi Kinnunen says that if it is possible to trace the production chain of battery materials from the battery plant all the way to the mine, certification can be given to sustainably produced batteries.

“This would give mines and metal refineries, with responsible operating practices, a competitive advantage, which would encourage the European production chain to develop and grow.”

As the biggest cobalt and nickel producer within the European Union, Finland has a unique opportunity to participate in the growth of the battery market, expected to be about 20% a year. There are also plans to launch lithium and graphite production operations in Finland.

Finland-based battery metals promotional agency, Finnish Minerals Group chief technology officer Jani Kiuru says the Battrace project offers Finnish operators an opportunity to start open and transparent cooperation and, as a result, to introduce themes Finland considers important to international cooperation, which is currently under preparation.

“The need, and partly also the pressure, to develop traceability come from EV manufacturers and the European Green Deal initiative, which emphasises the use of sustainably produced raw materials.”

In addition to the origin of metals, another factor affecting the sustainability of battery materials are the production methods used for metals. The battery industry requires significantly purer and more highly refined raw materials than the traditional metals industry.

The Battrace project aims to enhance the metal production processes for the needs of the battery industry and to ensure their sustainability by such means as life-cycle assessments.

The total budget of the project is about €5.8-million, of which the research project accounts for €2.7-million. The project funding comes from Business Finland and the research partners, as well as the companies participating in the project, including Finnish Minerals Group, Keliber, Outotec, Valmet Automation, Latitude66, Fennoscandian Resources and Mawson.