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Northvolt, a $12 billion startup founded by an ex-Tesla VP, thinks crushing and shredding old batteries is the way to make electric vehicles truly sustainable

A 3D image of what Northvolt's recycling plant Revolt Ett will look like on completion.A 3D rendering of what Northvolt’s Revolt Ett recycling plant will look like upon completion.

Northvolt

  • The Swedish battery maker Northvolt wants to fix electric vehicles’ sustainability issues.
  • The startup, founded by a former Tesla VP, is building the world’s largest battery-recycling plant.
  • Goldman Sachs, Volkswagen, and Spotify cofounder Daniel Ek have backed the $12 billion company.
  • This article is part of “Gains in Green Tech,” a series showcasing some of the most transformative solutions to the climate crisis. For more climate-action news, visit Insider’s One Planet hub.

In the northern Swedish city of Skellefteå, 250 construction workers brave the cold every morning to build what’s expected to be the largest battery-recycling facility in the world.

The site, near the Arctic Circle, belongs to the battery-manufacturing startup Northvolt and sits next door to its well-established gigafactory, where it supplies automotive giants like BMW, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

Northvolt, valued at $12 billion, was founded in 2016 by Peter Carlsson, a former Tesla vice president who dreams of making the world’s greenest battery. The startup is backed by many investors, including Goldman Sachs, Baillie Gifford, VC Norrsken, and Spotify’s cofounder Daniel Ek.

Demand for lithium batteries has surged since the advent of electric vehicles, which had a record-breaking year in 2022, accounting for 12.1% of the total market share for new cars in Europe.

Going electric has long been touted as a key fix to the climate crisis, but batteries’ start and end of life pose a big, dirty problem — something Northvolt wants to solve.

The exterior of Revolt Ett as on August 2022.The exterior of Revolt Ett in August.

Northvolt

The problem with batteries

Rare earth materials that go into making batteries have to be mined, which can cause ecological and social damage to developing areas in South America and Africa. They are then shipped around the world, with the manufacturing of batteries largely concentrated in China. Once these parts are made, they’re shipped again to EV manufacturers. 

In addition, batteries are traditionally hard to recycle — anyone who has scoured their neighborhood for battery-collection points knows how difficult it can be. If a battery ends up in a landfill, it can corrode and leak chemicals into the environment, which contaminates soil and water. 

Northvolt, through its Revolt Ett recycling facility, hopes to see the end of both of these scenarios when it opens in the third quarter of this year. It believes recycling old batteries locally and using recovered rare earth materials as feedstock for new batteries is the solution to the sustainability and supply-chain woes of the market.

“You can operate a mine with a quite low carbon footprint,” Emma Nehrenheim, the chief environmental officer at Northvolt, said.

But that doesn’t factor in the use of raw materials, land, and water. “Closing the loop” with recycling offers a fully sustainable choice, she added.

Emma Nehrenheim, chief environmental officer at NorthvoltEmma Nehrenheim, the chief environmental officer at Northvolt.

Northvolt

How Northvolt’s process works

Northvolt’s recycling process, which was dreamed up in 2018 and planned and tested in the following years, involves crushing, shredding, and filtering dismantled batteries. Different materials, such as copper, aluminum, and plastic, are separated and given to industry partners for recycling. Northvolt is left with a black powder called black mass, which contains nickel, manganese, cobalt, and lithium.

The company then uses a process called hydrometallurgy to extract the metals, which returns them to battery-grade quality. This means the black mass is dissolved in acid, which returns metals to their elementary form, Nehrenheim said. The process gets rid of any impurities the metal may have had, which is normally the limiting factor in recycling metals.

“This means that you can recycle it as many times as you want,” she added.

Once Northvolt’s latest venture, Revolt Ett, is up and running at full capacity, it’s expected to recycle 125,000 tons of battery materials each year. For context, over 1.2 million tons of batteries are set to reach their end of life in 2025, according to S&P Global’s IHS Markit.

The company plans to use 50% recycled metals in its batteries by 2030.

“It’s somewhere between realistic and challenging,” Nehrenheim said of the goal. 

The environmental lead called for an industrywide approach to “close all loops” and make battery manufacturing circular. The biggest challenge right now, she said, is material “escaping” from Europe and ending up in a landfill or scrapped.

Jars containing cylindrical cells; shredded pieces of steel, copper, aluminium, plastic and black mass from mechanical recycling; black mass; and a mix of nickel, manganese, and cobalt sulphates.Cylindrical cells; shredded pieces of steel, copper, aluminium, plastic, and black mass from mechanical recycling; black mass; and a mix of nickel, manganese, and cobalt sulfates.

Northvolt

Beyond 2040, Nehrenheim predicted that most raw materials used in Northvolt’s batteries would come from recycling. 

Revolt Ett will be able to recycle any batteries based on the lithium-ion chemistries lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide or lithium nickel cobalt aluminum oxide, not just those made by Northvolt.

Battery recycling is a nascent industry of its own

The company already has one recycling facility up and running, a joint partnership with the energy and aluminum company Hydro. The Hydrovolt pilot runs Northvolt’s recycling process up to the black-mass stage. Northvolt takes the black mass, while Hydro takes the aluminum. The other components — for example, plastics and copper — are sold to partners to be recycled.

Hydro, which has made a name for itself recycling aluminum, wants to support the green transition by providing the metal to European battery manufacturers.

Recycling aluminum takes only about 5% of the energy needed for virgin aluminum, reducing the process’ environmental footprint and global CO2 emissions, Einar Wahlstrøm, Hydro’s vice president of batteries, said.

A snapshot of Hydrovolt's interiorHydrovolt’s interior.

Northvolt/Hydrovolt

“We see the nascent battery industry as a value chain where we can utilize our capabilities, knowledge, and experience to develop a sustainable, economically viable, and competitive business,” Wahlstrøm told Insider.

“The industry lacks standardized technologies, and the sourcing market is currently fragmented,” Wahlstrøm added. “Even though the European EV sales are growing rapidly, it will take several years before these batteries reach end of life and need to be sustainably recycled.”

As a result, recycling demand is expected to surge seven to 10 years after the boom, Wahlstrøm said. Hydro is in a prime position to get ahead of the curve and industrialize the value chain to ultimately help drive down costs and improve recycled materials’ quality, he said.

That looming demand has meant investors have lined up for companies like Northvolt. The Swedish firm has already raised $7.1 billion and is in talks to raise a further $5 billion, the Financial Times reported.

Skellefteå was named one of the best places in the world by Time in 2022, in part thanks to its “Nordic warmth.”

The city, home to 75,000 people, looks set to also become the stage of a battery-recycling revolution.

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