“Here we have found a ‘Coca-Cola formula’, so to speak, for the production of the nickel-based active precursor cathode material needed for high-performance EV batteries,” says Björn Zikarsky, CEO of Pure Battery Technologies Pty Ltd (PBT), headquartered in Brisbane, Australia, somewhat provocatively. Founded in 2017 as a spin-off of the University of Queensland and represented by a subsidiary in Ettlingen since 2020, the company produces the precursor pCAM for nickel-based active cathode material CAM, which is used in lithium-ion batteries that are absolutely necessary for electromobility.
“PBT processes can replace previous industrial processes”
“To this end, we have developed novel processes for the new production and recovery of nickel-manganese-cobalt compounds,” says ex-performance swimmer and ex-Olympian Zikarsky. “These processes not only reduce process costs, they also significantly reduce chemical and energy consumption and thus CO2 emissions. We believe that these processes will replace the current processes in the industry.”
PBT’s corporate history began in Australia in 2012, when the University of Queensland in Brisbane had already spent many years researching the complicated issues of ‘raw material recovery from mixed metals and hydrometallurgical alternative processes to pyrometallurgy’ to reduce the environmental impact of refining metal ores. In this context, the two processes Selective Acid Leaching (SAL) – Selective Acid Leaching – and Combined Leaching (CL) – Combined Leaching – were originally used for optimised nickel metal recovery. “The step towards active cathode material and precursor cathode material was conceptually first taken in 2012. And we in Australia are very familiar with all kinds of metals and their processing,” says Bjorn Zikarsky, who originally comes from Erlangen and has lived in Australia for a long time.
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35 per cent less CO2 in battery production
The SAL and CL PBT processes not only simplify the production of active precursor cathode material for nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) EV batteries. Thanks to low residence times, the processes also require significantly less energy, emit less CO2 and generate lower costs than conventional processes, which are designed to separate the metals in the first step and recombine them in downstream processes. PBT takes a different approach, says CEO Zikarsky: “Mixed metal alloys with nickel, cobalt and manganese occur in the soil. These are concentrated. In the refining process to battery material, PBT’s SAL process focuses on separating the impurities instead of separating the individual metals.” In other words, the three metals are not separated from each other and then reassembled, only impurities are removed. The energy- and CO2-intensive addition of heat and pressure that is often necessary for metal separation is thus reduced. The same happens when recycling the so-called black mass. “The process is unique in the industry and protected by numerous patents: SAL and CL have been proven to save our processes up to 70 per cent energy, CO2 emissions are reduced by up to 85 per cent and the production costs for battery-grade precursor cathode material are significantly lowered,” Björn Zikarsky explains. In the entire manufacturing process of a battery, up to 35 percent less CO2 is produced by using PBT technology.
PBT process as a new standard for the industry?
The opportunity for commercialisation – especially for the automotive sector – was quickly recognised, prompting CEO Zikarsky to make a bold comparison: “We have virtually found a ‘Coca-Cola formula’ here for the production of the nickel-based, active precursor cathode material needed for high-performance EV batteries. We are setting a new standard for the industry and aim to become a leading supplier of NMC battery precursors in Europe – both in primary supply from the mining sector and in secondary supply.” After all, the ‘closed loop’ in the supply of e-car batteries within the EU is PBT’s big strategic goal.
The ‘closed loop’ means that raw materials no longer have to leave the EU for recycling and reprocessing. “Our technology can make a valuable contribution to this,” says Zikarsky. PBT can process black mass from all sources, not only used batteries, but also waste from battery production and other specific metal scrap from industrial production. For this reason, PBT is also very open to many other partnerships. For Björn Zikarsky, one thing is certain: “No single company, not even the really big corporations like BASF or Dow Chemical, will be able to ensure the closed loop on their own.”
“Talking to all decision-makers in the industry at eye level”.
Leading chemical companies are already among PBT’s partners and customers, and the Australians are working with a number of well-known car companies in pilot projects. Talks are being held with other car manufacturers, as CEO Zikarsky reports: “We are currently working with Tier 1 companies in the chemical industry and the automotive industry (OEMs). At the end of the day, everyone involved in the production and remanufacturing of EV batteries is a customer: the OEMs and their suppliers, the battery industry and the chemical industry.” A very important partnership for PBT, he said, is the cooperation with the German recycling company Cronimet, which has branches worldwide.
PBT already cooperates with a large number of external partners. In development, the company works together with research institutes. Meanwhile, business relationships have also been established with mine operators, OEMs, chemical plants and recyclers (without black mass processing) and other industry stakeholders. Current partners include Poseidon Nickel Limited, West Perth, Western Australia, a nickel sulphide exploration and mining company, the European Battery Alliance (EBA) and EIT InnoEnergy. Important for Zikarsky: “We talk to all decision-makers in the industry at eye level.”
Value chain from the mine to the precursor cathode material
In addition to creating the ‘closed loop’, another strategic goal is the so-called upstream, i.e. the value chain from the mine to the battery-ready active precursor cathode material, referred to in technical terms as pCAM. “The production of pCAM from primary raw materials is currently our most important strategic pillar,” says Björn Zikarsky. Together with its partners, the company masters the entire upstream value chain. Zikarsky emphasises the extensive experience of the Australian mining industry, also in the production of metal precursors: “For the foreseeable future, recycling will be able to contribute little to the supply of active cathode precursor material,” says Zikarsky, who holds a Master of Business Administration, Entrepreneurial Management and Finance degree, looking ahead: “Raw materials from the mines will be indispensable in the coming years.” The market for e-cars is growing fast, he says, and it will be several years before larger quantities of metal waste from batteries are available.
Growth also thanks to partners and suppliers
PBT is planning a turnover of 150 million euros in Germany for 2023/2024, and more than 1 billion euros globally from 2025/2026. PBT boss Zikarsky leaves no doubt that he sees his company on a dynamic growth course: “In 2025 we want to reach the one billion euro turnover mark. The market absolutely gives us that.” According to Zikarsky, the demand for EV battery capacity is expected to grow to 2,500 GWh by 2030 – from 234 GWh in 2020, that means more than a tenfold increase. As far as the company’s own capacity expansion at its German sites is concerned, Zikarsky points to PBT in Hagen (Westphalia). There the company has established its first production site in the EU. In Hagen, the nickel refinery Königswarter & Ebell Chemische Fabrik (K+E) was taken over in 2020 and the PBT processes SAL and CL were successfully tested in large-scale production and product conformity. “Currently, capacities are low. The site mainly (still) has demonstration character,” Zikarsky himself knows. But he has technical competence and expansion potential. “We have applied to expand the recycling and production capacities up to 15,000 tonnes of pCAM material (10,000 tonnes of metal). Translated into end products, that means pCAM for batteries for up to 180,000 cars the size of the VW ID 3. “Internationally, our medium-term goal,” Zikarsky continues, “is to deploy our technology where our partners are.”
“We are very focused”
As for competitive pressure – especially from the low-wage countries of Asia with their lax environmental regulations – and the shortage of skilled workers, Zikarsky is self-confident: “The most important factor is metal prices and process costs. Our processes for pCAM beat every competitor here. And the ‘CO2 reduction’ factor is elementary for the end customers.” The growth and the daily business are possible with relatively little additional personnel, as is the case with many chemical plants. “Moreover, we do have suppliers and partners who support us in our growth.” In addition, Björn Zikarsky and his colleague Thomas Fahrner, Managing Director PBT Germany, were successful swimmers at the Olympic Games as well as at German, European and World Championships. And it is precisely this experience in the endurance sport of swimming that could be helpful in the shark tank of battery manufacturers and their suppliers, as Zikarsky suggests: “We are very focused and have already competed successfully in several competitions. Long training also helps – and both can’t hurt.”