Blog 18 Jul 2022 

Sourcing metals sustainably

Find out about the novel technology we are investing in that will allow the extraction of metals from waste materials at a fraction of the cost.

Phillip Jones

Phillip Jones

Programme Manager

There is a huge need for low-energy, sustainable and cost-effective solutions for metal recycling, so we can repurpose and reuse metals existing in our economy. 

Metals are an essential resource for our progression towards a sustainable net zero economy. We depend on the availability of a number of metals for both pre-existing and novel technologies. For example, cobalt is a key material for aircraft engines, and is used along with nickel to make lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicle (EV) batteries. And gallium is essential in the formation of semiconductors in mobiles and other devices. 

However, with the declining availability of metals worldwide, the costs involved in producing usable metals are increasing. Several metals that are critically important in our economy have high rates of loss and low rates of recycling after use. Many commercially useful metals have a lifespan of 10 years, or less, within our economy, with significant amounts of metals being disposed of or lost in large quantities through supply lines rather than being reused or recycled. 

Newly mined versus repurposed metal

When a target metal is removed from newly mined ore, there is a loss of other non-target metals. This accounts for 50% of cobalt loss and greater than 95% for gallium, to name but two examples. Consider also the disposal of consumer products like electronic waste (e‑waste) and batteries. The UN reported in 2019 that we produce 50 million tonnes of e‑waste per year, only 20% of which is formally recycled. At this point, we broach the true problem: the need for a circular closed system for metal within our economy, one that allows us to recycle and reuse the resources we already have.

After the huge costs of exploration, mining, and primary refining to produce virgin-material metals, there is a necessity to protect this financial and environmental investment by retaining and reusing metals for longer. In comparison to newly mined virgin stocks, repurposed metals that are salvaged from scrap materials, have a smaller overhead and lower energy requirement. What’s more, current mining enterprises are resorting to lower grade and more remote mineral deposits as global natural stocks are depleted. Thus, the costs of primary materials will likely increase even more over time. 

By harnessing low-cost and safe technologies to produce secondary metals, we can meet the demands faced by the global economy, while reducing carbon emissions. Most metals can be recycled to a high quality that’s often equivalent to newly mined materials. 

Low-cost, low-energy metal extraction

Fulfilling the need for a closed system is the novel and low-impact technology termed Deep Eutectic Solvents (DES), harnessed by, and on the road to commercialisation with, the company Descycle. DES allows the extraction of metals without the high carbon footprint or highly toxic chemicals associated with traditional metal processing and smelting.

DES are a novel class of materials with unique chemical properties that can dissolve metals from waste materials while leaving non-metals, such as plastics or glass, untouched. In a nutshell, the DES system can pull metal out of waste products, ready for recycling into new products. It’s a radical new technology that has no need for large amounts of heat and energy, with the potential to challenge centuries of traditional resource-intensive methods. 

DES are a highly customisable system with a wide range of applications and can extract 99% of metals found in e‑waste. This technology has been under development for nearly 20 years, and the advantages are clear. It has drastically lower carbon emissions and does not use environmentally toxic chemicals like sulfuric acid and cyanide, instead favouring solvents that are cheap, readily available, biodegradable and recyclable. 

Descycle is a disruptive deep tech company that looks to replace existing carbon-intensive metal processing with an alternative system built on the chemical principles of eutectics. The first application of the system will be e‑waste recycling, a waste stream worth US$63 billion annually. Their work will provide a source of recycled metal to meet the growing needs of our economy.

Partnering to scale-up and commercialise

Using CPI’s in-house experience with deep tech and process innovation, our partnership with Descycle will rapidly commercialise this promising technology. With over £150 million of innovation assets, and a wealth of expertise from over 600 people in developing technologies to high throughput, our work with Descycle will take the system from bench-scale through to a fully engineered commercial process ready for market. 

Embracing the DES system would mean moving away from global-scale processes to a local and regional scale collection and metal production. The current focus for Descycle is the removal of precious metals from e‑waste, recycling metals such as gold, silver and palladium back into the marketplace, with potentially limitless applications of the technology elsewhere, including in the extraction of metals from ore. We’re currently helping Descycle to investigate the use of DES to extract nickel and cobalt from ore in remote mine locations, enabling a more environmentally friendly source of EV batteries.

We’re confident that this technology will disrupt the metals market as it meets the need for a low carbon, cost-effective and sustainable method of recycling and reusing existing metals in our economy. 

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