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Finland sparks positive change for batteries

Finnish companies are looking to jump-start a transition to a sustainable battery value chain.Geyser Batteries

As the only country in the world capable of managing the entire battery value chain, from mineral extraction to recycling, Finland is uniquely positioned to respond to the surge in demand for batteries stemming mostly from the rapid proliferation of electric vehicles in Europe.

Helsinki-headquartered Virta in April declared it has raised 30 million euros in funding for broadening the reach of its electric vehicle charging platform, providing yet another sign of the growing momentum and expectations for electric transport.

“New technologies can change the world for better only when they are sustainable environmentally, societally and business-wise,” stated CEO Jussi Palola.

Virta is Europe’s fastest-growing electric vehicle charging platform, with offices in Helsinki, Berlin, Stockholm, Paris and London. Image: Virta

The excitement surrounding electric transport and renewable energy often overshadows the fact that the core business quite literally driving them – batteries – is also experiencing an uptick economically and environmentally. The growth of electric traffic and renewable energy has prompted predictions that the value of the European battery market will reach 250 billion euros by 2025.

Finland in January became one of the first countries in the world to unveil a national battery strategy, devised to establish itself as a competitive, competent and sustainable player in the global market.

Founded on the availability and processing of raw materials such as cobalt, nickel, lithium and graphite, production and research of battery materials and recycling, and expertise in digitalisation and electrification, the strategy sets the country up to assume a significant role in building a complete value chain for batteries, viewed Minister of Economic Affairs Mika Lintilä.

“Finland not only has all the key minerals for batteries but also outstanding competence in research and production,” he stated.

“We are eager to build dialogue with other countries on halving transport emissions by 2030 and, in connection to this goal, on developing a sustainable battery industry. Responsible operations, traceability, safety and carbon neutrality are guiding principles for the Finnish battery sector – from minerals to recycling.”

Expertise in battery recycling is expected to be in particularly high demand, as increasingly cost-efficient methods, strict environmental regulation and ambitious sustainability targets make recycling an appealing option for cell manufacturers striving to supplement the supply of virgin materials.

The world can ill-afford to run out of precious metals such as cobalt, lithium and nickel, reminds Tero Holländer, head of battery business at Fortum. Image: Fortum

While estimates suggest only about five per cent of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled worldwide, the market is projected to grow sharply in the coming years. Europe alone could have over 130 000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries to recycle in 2030, over two-thirds the amount available for recycling worldwide today, according to Hans-Eric Melin, director of Circular Energy Storage, a London-based consultancy specialising in lithium-ion battery life-cycle management.

Coordinating the European battery industry’s research on recycling is Finland.

“The main goal of all our research is to find ways to return, in an economically viable way, as big a proportion as possible of the battery materials to battery production. It’s important to understand both the primary process as well as the secondary process in order to fully optimise the refining chain,” noted Mari Lundström, professor at Aalto University.

Fortum, a Finnish majority state-owned energy company, is shaking up the value chain for industrial and electric vehicle batteries with a low-carbon dioxide recycling solution capable of utilising up to 80 per cent of batteries, thus ensuring cobalt, lithium, nickel and other scarce metals are returned to circulation from end-of-life products.

Fortum has developed a low-emission recycling solution that enables the re-use of up to 80 per cent of battery materials in end-of-life products. Image: Fortum

“The growing need for batteries consumes enormous amounts of rare metals. If we run out of these scarce metals, we can bid farewell to further electrification and the increasing use of renewable energy sources,” told Tero Holländer, head of battery business at Fortum.

“We will renew the value chain for lithium-ion batteries to enable a cleaner, electrified future.”

Fortum reported earlier this month that its effort to support the industrial deployment of a comprehensive battery recycling service concept has been recognised with a grant of almost 1.9 million euros under an innovation project funded by the European Commission. The grant was presented by Business Finland.

One use case for end-of-life batteries probed by the company is energy storage. Fortum in April stated it will begin piloting a battery solution developed with Comsys and Volvo Cars at its hydropower plant in Landafors, Sweden. The solution utilises batteries that no longer have the necessary capacity to function in plug-in hybrid cars as energy storage in a bid to extend the life of the batteries and hydropower turbines.

“Our goal is to use and test a variety of modern battery solutions to improve the functionality of our energy system,” summarised Toni Kekkinen, head of hydropower at Fortum.

“This solution of using batteries that no longer serve their original purpose is an important opportunity. Extending the life of these batteries before their material is recycled has major positive effects on both the environment and the economy. It strengthens renewable hydropower’s role in the energy system.”

The government-backed, resource-rich operating environment has sparked interest from businesses also outside Finland.

Johnson Matthey in April put pen to paper on a letter of intent for developing a 30 000-tonne cathode materials facility in Vaasa, Finland, with Finnish Minerals Group. Construction on the roughly 50-hectare plot in an industrial area dedicated to the battery value chain is set to commence later this year and scheduled for completion in 2024.

Robert MacLeod, chief executive of the chemicals company based in London, the UK, called attention to the benefits offered by Vaasa: reliable access to renewable energy, availability of sustainable raw materials, and proximity to the automotive industry in Europe.

The City of Vaasa has designated a roughly 1 000-hectare industrial area for battery and energy companies. Image: City of Vaasa

“In Vaasa, we have the possibility to develop the greenest battery value chain in the world,” stated Tomas Häyry, Mayor of Vaasa.

Finnish Minerals Group is to invest in developing and deploying auxiliary processes for the production facility, such as large-scale treatment of sodium sulphate and production of metallic raw materials.

Germany’s BASF, in turn, has chosen Harjavalta, Finland, as the location of its first battery materials production facility in Europe.

“We believe that local production and local content for battery materials are key to ensure a resilient and sustainable supply chain, which is one of the reasons we decided to locate our precursor cathode active materials plant in Finland,” commented Tor Stendahl, managing director of BASF Finland.

As Finland continues to take steps toward carbon neutrality on a society-wide scale, the equipment and processes for extracting minerals from the ground must be developed, too. Sweden’s Sandvik is gearing up to introduce to the ecosystem a full range of battery-tramming rigs for underground mining applications to enable mining operators to eliminate underground exhaust emissions, as well as reduce fuel and ventilation costs.

Geyser Batteries develops and manufactures water-based, non-lithium batteries with a small carbon footprint. Image: Geyser Batteries

“We aim to trigger adoption of fully electric solutions that provide both significant business and […] environmental, health and safety benefits,” outlined Jani Vilenius, technology director at the mining and rock solutions division of Sandvik.

Also batteries themselves are being re-thought in Finland.

Geyser Batteries in May announced it will establish a pilot facility for producing and developing batteries based on its proprietary water-based electrochemical technology in Mikkeli, Eastern Finland. The Finnish startup has stated that its high-power non-lithium batteries are capable of over one million fast-charging cycles even at ultra-low ambient temperatures, all the while having a small carbon footprint.

Andrey Shigaev, CEO of Geyser Batteries, said Mikkeli offers the company good transport connections, soft-landing services, research facilities and other forms of support.

“Beyond the production facility, we are excited about co-operation opportunities in the region as we are starting a fascinating pilot project, targeting a massive grid power management market,” he added.

Shigaev brought his startup and electrochemical expertise to Finland from Russia in 2018, after becoming one of the first ever recipients of the Finnish Startup Permit.

“My team is aiming to disrupt the energy storage market by delivering a product that is superior to the supercapacitors and, what’s more, [shows] better economics in heavy-duty applications than Li-ion batteries do,” he proclaimed.

By: Aleksi Teivainen