In Conversation with Nitin Gupta, Co-Founder, Attero Recycling

Highlights :

  • Without local sourcing of critical materials, we will be shifting our dependence from Saudi Arabia to China, when it comes to EV’s, says Nitin Gupta, making the case for his firm Attero, which has taken the lead in effective recycling of Lithium ion batteries.
In Conversation with Nitin Gupta, Co-Founder, Attero Recycling

As the EV transition picks up pace, India’s progress will depend on the availability of Lithium-Ion batteries, and their cost. It’s a challenge for a country wholly dependent on imports for now, a dependence as crippling as our dependence on oil imports. Alive to the challange, the government floated a PLI scheme for battery manufacturing, and has duly selected 4 major players for establishing 50 GWh of cell manufacturing capacity. But that is only half the battle. There is the small issue of raw materials, especially Nickel, Cobalt, and of course Lithium, which are simply not available in their raw form in India. Trying to change this, with a supportive government behind it, is Attero Recycling, India’s largest, and claimedly, the world’s most efficient lithium ion recycling firm. Group Editor Prasanna Singh caught up with Nitin Gupta, Co-Founder (along with brother Rohan Gupta) of Attero, on just what the recycling opportunity in Lithium battery offers, and challenges therein.

Q. How did you end up in going for the recycling business

Nitin Gupta, Co-Founder, Attero Recycling

Nitin Gupta, Co-Founder, Attero Recycling

Nitin Gupta: I did my bachelor’s in electrical engineering from IIT Delhi, graduated in 2000. After that I worked for a year in the US where I was designing chipsets for a firm. After that, I did an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business. And then came back to India. The idea of recycling actually germinated from Rohan who’s the co founder in the company. He was at that point in time working in SAP labs, Bangalore, and he had an old laptop, he didn’t know what to do with. We discussed the issue in detail, in terms of the lack of options for end of life electronic products.  So it started as a social and environmental concern. And over a period of time, we did realize that if we develop the right technology to recycle all this  with the right collection mechanism, we can build a business which is on the confluence of technology and sustainability,. And that’s the motivation for doing this.

Q. So  you started this in 2008? Initially as an e-waste management firm?

Nitin Gupta: We are the largest electronic waste recycling company in the country today .We work with all the top OEMs that you can think of- Samsung, LG, Whirlpool, Godrej, Portronics etc.. So that has become a separate vertical in itself. While the Lithium recycling business is the second and increasingly, larger vertical for us.

For electronic waste, when it comes to recycling and processing, we have nine plus granted global patents. These patents are across the US, China, Europe and other parts of Asia as well. We extract pure gold, pure silver, pure copper, aluminum, palladium, tin and sell that back in the circular economy. We are also the only electronic waste recycling company in the world to get carbon credits per tonne of electronic waste recycled, So the United Nations looked at our processes and agreed that as an example, the amount of energy used to extract one gram of copper using Atteros recycling process is fairly small, compared to the energy used to extract the same amount of copper from a virgin mine or any of the secondary sources of  that material. So that’s the methodology, but very high on ESG which is the environmental social aspects very high on carbon footprint as well.

Q. So that’s the e-waste part of the business, and as I understand, its been profitable and on a growth trajectory for quite some time. Tell us about the Lithium recycling part now.  

Nitin Gupta: So on the lithium ion side, we started looking at it around three years ago. And the reason we looked at it was that lithium ion battery is the best best battery technology in our opinion, largely because it’s got the highest energy density, then you have the faster charging time and the slowest discharging time. Now, when we look at an EV, almost 50% of the cost of an EV is the cost of a battery, out of which 35% is the cost of metals which make up this battery. These include cobalt, graphite, lithium, nickel, manganese. Each of these metals has significant ESG issues as well as supply security issues. Take cobalt, for example. Almost 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the DR Congo region, which is driven by child labor, a significant issue for procurers. Importantly, at the current known sources of cobalt and current usage rate and  demand for cobalt, the world will run out of cobalt by 2030.

Similarly take lithium. 60% of the world’s lithium is mined in the Bolivia Argentina triangle, which is also considered the world’s driest region. That’s a huge issue, as traditional lithium mining is a water guzzling process. To give you some context, to extract one tonne of lithium using a traditional lithium mining process requires more than 500,000 gallons of water. It’s the same story across most battery materials. So when we looked at it, we said if we can develop the right tech for lithium ion battery recycling, we’re not only solving the end of life waste problem but much more than that. We’re also becoming a significant player in the battery materials supply chain. Today we are running a commercial facility in India, where we are recycling all kinds of lithium ion battery, whether it is some consumer electronics, like a cell phone, mobile, laptop, and other kinds of electronic devices, or it’s from stationary storage like telecom towers and others, or any sort of EVs. We recycle all of them extracting pure battery grade cobalt at 99.9%, purity,

Similarly, we get pure pharmaceutical grade lithium carbonate. I mention pharma grade because our output can actually be used by pharma industry as it is better than battery grade. Similarly, we extract battery grade nickel , graphite, manganese sulfate, manganese dioxide and others. All of these are being put back into the circular economy.

Attero's Roorkee Plant

Attero Recycling’s Roorkee Plant

Q. Are you selling it back to direct users? Who are your buyers? 

No, since India doesn’t have any cell manufacturing capability as yet. If you take a look at the ecosystem of lithium ion battery, first is the mining company, that mines and produces cobalt and lithium and nickel and graphite.  A lot of this output needs to be refined further. This is where China controls  97% of the lithium supply, although they don’t control the mining supply. Lithium  gets refined in China, then the output of the refiners or the miners goes back to anode and cathode manufacturers who basically mix the graphite with some silicon to make an anode material or mix the cobalt nickel lithium manganese is a certain chemical formulation depending on what battery chemistry you want. Be it an LFP or an NMC 811 or NMC six two two depending on whatever that you want. These anode and cathode materials along with the electrolyte and separators are sold to cell manufacture, cell manufacturers like ,  LG in South Korea, SK Innovation, Samsung, Panasonic in Japan, CATL in China, Northvolt in Sweden etc. These cells are then sold to battery pack manufacturers who take these cells, put them together, as they do in India. Pack manufacturers don’t require cobalt etc themselves. So we are today selling cobalt, lithium carbonate, graphite, manganese, copper, aluminum to industry in India, which is not the battery industry. Okay, because these metals have other uses. So although battery manufacturers internationally have asked us to apply to them, and we’ll be exporting to them very soon as our volumes climb.

Q. From an extraction perspective, does it matter whether it’s an LFP or NMC battery?

Nitin Gupta: For us, it does not matter but nowhere  in the world does a company have a process to recycle LFP batteries. LFP batteries are 0% cobalt, 0% nickel. Every other battery recycling company in the world only extracts cobalt and nickel efficiently. So if the battery has no cobalt or nickel, they basically can’t extract anything you want. At Attero we extract more than 98% of all metals. That’s a huge technological arbitrage capability that we have built and for which we have more than 20 granted patents on lithium ion battery recycling. These patents are different from the e-waste patents where we have nine .

Q. How do you source your batteries for recycling?

There are two ways or three ways to recycle lithium ion batteries globally. First is and the most basic is that companies in the recycling space internationally, they take these battery cells back, do mechanical recycling and have two output streams. One output stream contains copper, aluminum, iron and plastic and the other output stream contains black mass. Black Mass is basically anode and cathode materials mixed together. Now this black mass contains cobalt, nickel, lithium, graphite, manganese and some bit of copper and aluminum right? The mechanical recycling firms do not refine blackness and do not extract cobalt, or nickel or graphite. So a Duesenfeld GmbH  in Germany is just a mechanical recycling processor. Li cycle in the US today is only a mechanical recycling processor.

At Attero, we are planning to put up the first black mass refining plant by the end of this year. So that’s the first thing, the second set of players who recycle lithium ion batteries, use the metallurgical process and just take these cells and put them in a smelter. Because metallurgical processes can’t have a very different heat ratio and lithium has a very low melting point lit’s lost in slag and graphite is carbon that gets lost and they’re only able to recover cobalt and nickel at 90% extraction efficiency only. Nothing else, no lithium, no graphite, no manganese, nothing else. The companies that do this are Unicore in Belgium, for example. The third sort of company is a pure chemical companies who use chemical processing technology to extract some bit of cobalt, some bit of nickel, some bit of lithium, these guys can extract almost 50% of cobalt, nickel and lithium, but 0% graphite, because it’s very tough to extract it, and 0% manganese, okay, so companies that are doing this are, let’s say, in South Korea, very small scale at this point in time, but the extraction efficiency is very, very low. A known firm like Envirostream (Australia), is just a mechanical recycling company. What differentiates Attero from all of this is our proprietary process, which is globally patented and globally accepted, has the maximum recycling efficiency, we recycle all kinds of batteries, all chemistries, and do it profitably.

Q. Do you earn carbon credits on your lithium ion work also? How big is the recycling market in India and globally? 

Nitin Gupta: Globally, more than $2 billion have been invested over the last 12 months. And many more continue to get invested.

There are two macro trends that are happening. The first macro trend is that more and more Giga factories are coming up. Giga factories are by LG or Panasonic, CATL building cells. So and in these Giga factories, more than $100 billion have been invested and many more continue to get invested.

These Giga factories are coming up because almost every automobile manufacturer worth his or salt, and said they’re completely moving to EV , or substantially moving to EV. And they have regulators making it easier with targets. So there’s a demand for these cells.  On the other hand, the other macro trend is because the demand supply of metals, cobalt, nickel, graphite, lithium are in a short squeeze.

So from that perspective, recycling becomes a very, very good play, to play on the macro side of the demand for lithium ion cells increasing plus the fact that the key metals are in short supply. If we can collect and recycle them extremely efficiently, you’re sitting on a goldmine or shall I say lithium mine.

Q. So in that sense, do you see an opportunity for a country like India to become sort of a recycling hub?

Nitin Gupta: Absolutely. We are working with NITI Aayog, and the government is pushing the policy in India is from two perspectives. One is to improve the environmental conditions of the country and not have gasoline cars running around. The second is to reduce the forex import bill where oil contributes a large portion to that. But if you do not have local manufacturing of lithium ion cells, then we’ll only be replacing Saudi Arabia with China. Right? Nothing else will happen. To do that we have the PLI scheme for giga factory setup in the country. The challenge there is that India does not have any reserves for lithium or cobalt which are critical materials to make these cells. So the government went ahead and created a PSU (KABIL- Khanij Bidesh India Limited) whose shareholder are NALCO and other PSU’s. KABIL’s job is to go ahead and procure cobalt and lithium from mines outside India. And to make sure that India is self dependent on these critical battery raw materials. After looking at our setup and processes, the government agreed that we can make India the recycling hub of lithium ion batteries.

Q. We see a country like Norway, also trying to become a sort of a recycling hub for Europe, at least. And the advantage their energy mix is almost completely renewable energy. Doesn’t that give firms there a head start in terms of total carbon footprint in the extraction process?

Nitin Gupta: From a carbon footprint perspective, yes, right. But please remember that even today, Attero recycling processes consume the lowest energy in the world. And that’s the basis on which we get carbon credits, right. Obviously, we’ll be in a better position if we shift to renewable, it’s better. But we’re already there, to a large extent.

Q. Does earning carbon credits make a significant impact on the business side? 

Nitin Gupta: Yeah, if I look at a profit perspective, it does not add any significant value to profit. But the carbon markets are going through their own upheaval. A few years ago, they were sitting at $1/credit. Now, they’re sitting at five to $10. And we are seeing today that they are expected to go to a 100 dollars, 70 to 80. At $100, it will start making some impact. So we are in a good position from that perspective.

Q. We saw with lead acid batteries that a regime to ensure recycling took a long time coming, due to the low value of those batteries at end of life. That is not the case with Lithium ion, but what could be done to make the process world class earlier? How do you price the cost of batteries collect?

Nitin Gupta: Two things. First, is that almost 90% of the automobile OEMs in India, are current clients of Attero. MG  motors, Hyundai, you Maruti Suzuki, Toyota, Tata Motors. So they already understand our value proposition well.

We handled the full battery recall when Hyundai decided to recall the Kona (EV) batteries worldwide, including in India. That’s more than around 300 tons of lithium ion batteries. So, coming back from a policy perspective, the government of India has been pretty proactive and lithium and battery recycling policy. There are already three policy drafts out there. First is talking about EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) and lithium ion batteries similar to what they did in plastics and similar to what they did in electronic waste. The EPR policy, which is a draft policy by a Ministry of Environment, forests and climate change basically says that every large or every producer of lithium ion batteries or EVs in India, will have collection targets of take back targets for end of life lithium batteries, and will be responsible to meet those targets. Otherwise, there are financial penalties and non financial penalties. And we’ve seen the EPR regime quite successfully helped plastic waste get organized and quite successfully helping electronic waste to get organized. Otherwise, electronic waste was being treated in a very hazardous manner in the country. And the country is paying a huge social and economic cost and environmental cost because, but EPR is helping us move in the right direction. So the first policy is about the EPR and lithium ion batteries, which will aid in collection, which will aid in formalizing the entire collecting industry as well.

The second is a draft Circular Economy policy, which is being put out by MEiTY (Ministry of electronics and telecommunications). That basically says that companies in India who use copper, aluminum or other metals in their input supply chain have to ensure a certain percentage comes from recycled output. And that again, will give a fillip to the entire recycling industry, whether it’s plastics electronic waste , lead acid battery, lithium and battery what have you .

Q. As the market is still developing here, where do you pick your batteries from currently?

Nitin Gupta: We pick up a lot of storage batteries for example from Reliance Jio, all the telecom batteries in the last quarter, we must have picked up 600 tons. So in fact, today, stationary storage is a bigger contributor to our supply

Q. Finally, what are the big strengths you pitch your firm on, when it comes to investors?

Nitin Gupta: It’s just four points really. First, noone else can do it. Second, what we do feeds back into the circular economy narrative for customers. Third, we are very good at our job, we do it very efficiently, which makes the ESG look good. Finally of course, we take care of what would be a headache for many firms. Attero is a growing, high margin, profitable firm, and we hope to expand our capacity to 11,000 tonnes per annum in the next few quarters, from the existing 1000 tonnes. At that size, we will have 22% of the market here in India, assuming a market size of around 50,000 tonnes per annum for recycling. So there is major headroom for growth.

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Prasanna Singh

Prasanna has been a media professional for over 20 years. He is the Group Editor of Saur Energy International