Environmental management and recycling company Aurelius believes in progressive sustainability and technology for a better world. Founded in 2014, our company’s name is a tribute to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who often looked to Nature for guidance and inspiration. Unlike many of his peers, Aurelius stood up for the needs of the public, his strong moral values and ethical stance led to openness, honesty and justice for the people. Aurelius Environmental seeks to exemplify these principles in all its operations. We aim to revolutionise the recycling industry not only through science, but also via ethical practice, sustainability and fairness for the local communities wherein we conduct our business.
We have a vision. We believe in a fully sustainable business, where waste streams enter our processes and nothing but products leave, and where multiple recycling infrastructures complement each other – one stream’s waste being another stream’s in-feed. Our journey towards this vision begins here, with a technology poised to revolutionise the recycling of lead-acid batteries that is ready to provide the innovation this field has been desperately seeking.
In partnership with Cambridge University, UK, we are pleased to introduce NUOVOpb, our zero-emissions, energy-yielding process for the recycling of lead.
Where we are
At Aurelius we have extensive knowledge of the waste and recycling industry. We have a proven track record as an established waste management business that accepts, processes and recycles over 5,000 tonnes of used lead-acid batteries per annum. By the end of 2017 our market share is forecast to be 15,000 tonnes.
The principle technology, NUOVOpb, was invented and optimised by researchers at Cambridge University, with the intellectual property (IP) and knowhow having been exclusively licensed to Aurelius Environmental.
Large-scale trials, those beyond laboratory-scale, have been carried out successfully by a multinational company in Germany. We are now building a UK pilot plant to industrialise NUOVOpb and the production of lead oxide. Our trial will involve a 350 tonne per annum in-feed which will be scaled to 10,000 tonnes per annum within a period of 12 months from the prototype launch.
Our timescales, are as follows:
- 3-6 months for industrialisation (350 tonnes per annum in the UK);
- 6-12 months for product-to-market (stable supply of lead oxide); and
- 18-24 months for the production of 10,000 tonnes per annum in the UK.
The recycling of lead is a colossal business. In 2013, global secondary lead production rose to 6.1 million tonnes (source: ILA). All the lead produced in the US is secondary lead, while in Europe it comprises 70% of the market.
Lead-acid batteries are the primary application for all of this lead. In Europe and the US, almost 100% of used lead-acid batteries are recycled to afford the so-called ‘secondary lead’. This impressive statistic proves that lead is one of the most successfully recycled materials in the world, which is no surprise at all. Lead can be recycled indefinitely with no reduction in quality, and lead-acid batteries are known as the world’s most recycled consumer product (source: ECOBAT, BCI). Perfect for a circular economy, one would think, but there is a catch.
The recycling of lead batteries via current methods produces ‘smelter smoke’ – a toxic mixture of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and often lead particles. It is ironic that lead recycling is motivated by a desire to achieve sustainability, and yet the recycling processes in use today are damaging the environment.
The recycling of lead has come a long way, but it is not yet sustainable. Despite our success, smelting and pyrometallurgical plants pollute the atmosphere and the world we live in, consuming far more than they provide in terms of energy. But thanks to NUOVOpb, all this is about to change.
In monetary terms, the lead-acid battery commands the largest segment of the battery market. It is used in more than a billion petrol and diesel vehicles to start the engine and to power on-board electronics. Hybrid and electric vehicles also use these batteries to improve fuel efficiency and to reduce carbon emissions – but that’s not all; e-bikes, fork-lifts, milk vans, golf carts and other vehicles can be entirely battery-powered to completely eliminate harmful emissions.
Standby power supplies are also dependent on the lead-acid battery. Indeed, most of the world’s fixed and mobile phone networks, IT infrastructures, hospitals, medical devices and more rely on these batteries for emergency power. They are even used in the renewable energy market to provide low-cost storage for the energy generated from solar and wind power.
The lead-acid battery is the main application for lead with 60-70% of global consumption derived from the recycling of used batteries. On a global scale, consumption of lead exceeds 12 million tonnes per year, and growth rates are forecast to rise for decades to come, particularly in emerging markets. But therein lies the problem. Traditional pyrometallurgical plants are not only inefficient and damaging to the environment; they are economically unfeasible unless built to a certain capacity. This is because the capital costs for installing such plants are expensive – prohibitively expensive for local communities that tend to utilise ‘informal’ recycling methods, which are unregulated and damaging to communities via the escape of lead and the poisoning of residents.
NUOVOpb – towards sustainable green recycling
NUOVOpb uses refined mechanical separation and a patented hydrometallurgical process to afford a lead-oxide battery paste unlike any other. The key benefits offered by our process and product include:
- No harmful emissions – unlike smelting, our lead recycling chemistry does not release any gases harmful to the environment, which is a major step towards sustainability;
- Energy is a product of the reaction – the chemistry is highly exothermic, producing energy that can be fed back into the system or stored. Whereas smelting consumes anything from 2-10Kwh energy per kilogramme of battery recycled, our process consumes a mere 50Wh (roughly the same amount of energy that the battery produces); and
- Instead of only producing lead ingot, we produce ‘battery-ready’ lead oxide, which can be used to manufacture new batteries, meaning that the downstream re-processing of lead to lead oxide is avoided, leading to cost savings and a higher quality lead oxide.
Due to the superior quality of our lead oxide, batteries made from our product can be at least 30% more efficient than regular lead-acid batteries.
These key benefits deliver three important outcomes:
- We can produce a more efficient battery. Imagine a lead battery that is more efficient and cheaper to produce than a battery made from virgin materials. NUOVOpb makes this possible. We have the ability to control the physical parameters of our lead oxide, enabling us to produce a unique lead paste which is up to 30% more efficient than lead oxide produced directly from lead ingot. The result: we can make lighter, smaller and more efficient batteries;
- Low capital expenditure. We are economically viable with a much smaller processing capacity than a smelter. This allows us to be profitable in remote areas, and in developing or emerging countries where we can position facilities closer to the source of the waste batteries. We improve efficiency, lower transport costs and allow for economic and safe recycling anywhere in the world; and
- Economic advantage. For every 10,000 tonnes of batteries processed we expect to generate between $2.5m and $5m (~€2.2m and €4.4m) more gross profit than smelting, depending on the cost of the reagent, citric acid (Fig. 1).
There are three NUOVOpb (reference Gaiapb in this graph) columns for high ($800/tonne), low ($400/tonne) and current reagent costs ($650/tonne).
NUOVOpb is not just about sustainability – it is about adding value to the lead-acid battery closed loop recycling systems and, from an investment perspective, it is significantly more profitable than pyrometallurgy.
For NUOVOpb, the largest cost is the reagent – citric acid, the price of which is known to vary. Historically, it has ranged from $400 to $800 per tonne. Securing a low-cost supply of the reagent will ensure maximum profit and stability for this project.
If the reagent costs $800/tonne, we can generate ~$2.5m more than pyrometallurgy ($8.6m for pyrometallurgy, compared to $11.1m for NUOVOpb).
For a process that has the capacity to generate roughly $12m per 10,000 tonne in-feed, these capital costs are low, and considering the other benefits of our technology – i.e. being environmentally friendly and able to produce a more efficient battery – one can see how NUOVOpb could revolutionise the industry.
The capital expenditure graphs (Fig. 1, 2) are the result of work carried out by UK-based business management consultants Oakdene Hollins. The figures represent the cost of setting up, operating and maintaining the plants over a ten-year period, but are plotted as the yearly average cost within the same period.
Our technology is based on an ambient temperature hydrometallurgical process – replacing the comparatively hot, high-energy processes used in pyrometallurgy. The individual steps involved, carried out once the paste has been neutralised, are as follows:
- Leaching crystallisation
Non-toxic carboxylic acids are added to the neutralised paste. Unlike other hydrometallurgical methods in development, our lead is not solubilised in the leachate and we do not use electro-winning. This is a significant advantage because electroextractions are expensive in terms of the energy cost and use of electricity. In our process, what follows is the crystallisation/precipitation of an organic precursor containing lead. The carboxylic acid used in this process is citric acid – a well-known material used in the foods, drinks and pharmaceuticals industries. It is safe, affordable and revolutionary for the recycling of lead.
The precursor is heated to 300-400°C to remove organics and release lead. These organics serve as fuel in the combustion process, thereby assisting the calcination process and lowering the energy cost. The decomposition liberates a mixture of metallic lead and lead oxide. The degree of oxidation depends upon the operating conditions.
By varying the combustion/calcination conditions through our process controls, it is possible to control the ratio of Alpha and Beta forms of lead oxide produced. Most importantly, lead oxide is produced in nano-crystalline form. According to laboratory studies, this lead oxide is up to 30% more efficient than that produced by traditional methods, even from ultra-pure lead. In other words, Aurelius is not only low-cost and environmentally friendly; we eliminate the need for downstream re-processing of lead to lead oxide – a process that smelters cannot avoid. In addition to these notable advantages, we produce a lead oxide that is up to 30% more efficient than anything offered in the market today.
3. Lead-sulphate recovery
Any residual lead sulphate (PbSO4) can be recovered in the calcined lead product in the form of a binder. Therefore, this recycling process does not result in the release of sulphur dioxide and other noxious gases. Other products, including lead sub-oxide and metal lead, can be obtained using the same procedure. At little extra cost the chemical composition of these products can be controlled. Importantly, this process works with both lead and lead alloys, although the latter require additional refining steps.
Needless to say, our lead oxide can be used to manufacture new batteries without further processing. It is highly-pure, proven through laboratory testing, and test batteries made with this material are more efficient than primary lead-acid batteries.
Lead is a globally traded commodity with a worldwide market value in excess of $20bn. Yet most lead mines are becoming exhausted. Coupled with rising global demand, recycled lead makes up roughly 57% of all lead produced worldwide. There are no economic alternatives to lead batteries for starting, lighting and ignition in automotive applications, and lead-acid batteries continue to offer the cheapest and most reliable source of energy for many old, new and emerging technologies.
Extremely high growth rates in lead consumption are forecast in emerging markets for decades to come. Yet capital costs for installing pyrometallurgical process plants with full environmental control for recycling lead are high. This leads to so-called ‘informal sector’ recycling, where the escape of lead to the environment causes pollution and poisoning of local communities.
A new, environmentally friendly, low-capital cost process will have major global impact. Our technology can deliver this and so much more as it is more profitable than traditional smelting plants and produces superior, more efficient lead-acid batteries. At Aurelius Environmental, we seek to set up our own recycling facilities, but will also evaluate joint ventures and licensing arrangements. With our UK pilot plant due to open in 2017; we are paving the way for companies around the world to join us on our mission to deliver next-generation recycling – with corporate responsibility, sustainability and a brighter future for all.
St. John’s Innovation Centre