Chinese battery makers rev up to win recycling race

The production line for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles at a factory in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, China.
The production line for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles at a factory in Huzhou, Zhejiang province, China.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG • Chinese battery giants can win the recycling race. Metals recovered from spent car cells could be worth more than US$20 billion (S$27 billion) a year within a decade, according to Berenberg research, driven by demand for ingredients like lithium and cobalt.

Established recyclers have a head start, but with half of the world's electric cars sold in the People's Republic, local manufacturers like Contemporary Amperex Technologies and BYD can pull ahead.

The current fleet of electric cars - roughly three million, a fraction of its future size - is starting to age. Most will exhaust their batteries by the 2020s, or earlier.

While the hardware can last eight years, many will not go the distance, especially if carmakers encourage customers to replace cells sooner.

An exponential increase in numbers and the value inside these spent boxes has already lured veteran recyclers like Umicore. Recovering metal and other materials generated an operating profit margin of 20 per cent for the Belgian group last year.

In future, large-scale battery recycling could be more profitable still. Competition from the world's largest car market, though, is tough. China has subsidised green cars and promoted companies like US$22-billion battery manufacturer CATL. It also has volume on its side: Beijing wants sales of new energy vehicles to touch seven million by 2025, up from 500,000 last year.

To kick-start recycling, regulators have also made carmakers responsible for the disposal of old cells: They typically then call on local suppliers like CATL or Warren Buffett-backed batteries-to-cars conglomerate BYD.

Finally, a drive to impose uniform standards could make it easier to achieve automation and economies of scale fast.

For Beijing's battery champions, there is a double pay-off. They can charge for the safe disposal and secure raw material for their growing factories - CATL and BYD target a combined 110 gigawatt hours of capacity by 2020, equivalent to more than three times Tesla's gigafactory.

The opportunity to secure ingredients like cobalt is especially attractive: Prices have doubled in two years and supply is concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That access could give them an edge over behemoths like Panasonic.

CATL has invested in a local recycler, while BYD says it is opening a facility in Shanghai this year. China is revving up for a recycling race. Rivals best brace for a scrap.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2018, with the headline 'Chinese battery makers rev up to win recycling race'. Print Edition | Subscribe