Despite the rise of lithium-ion batteries, lead-acid battery (LABs) technology is expected to remain viable in the energy storage sector in the foreseeable future, particularly in emerging markets.
LABs are a text-book example for a circular economy, with approximately 98% being recycled at their end-of-life. However, since lead is toxic, LAB recycling poses challenges. Lead recycling in developed markets is characterised by high operational costs, while in low- and middle-income countries it is often a source of negative impact on the environment, health and welfare of recycling workforce and neighbouring communities, owing to informal practices.
|By the numbers|
|45 million tonnes||Approximate lead in use globally|
|85%||Lead in use deployed in lead-acid batteries|
|Up to 90%||Reduction of CO2 emissions by using Solveteq’s process, compared to incumbent technology|
|90%||Potential savings in capital expenditure from setting up a Solveteq recycling plant compared to incumbent technology|
|34,000 tonnes||Potential reduction of direct and indirect CO2 emissions per year in the UK|
At present, there is no commercial lead recycling process available that is both affordable and environmentally friendly. The process developed by Solveteq is addressing this humanitarian, societal and economic challenge.
Solveteq’s solution replaces the most energy-intensive and intrinsically-polluting steps in the LAB recycling process with a low-temperature, solvent-based method. The IP-protected technology uses readily-available, benign chemicals to recycle spent LABs. The process produces lead and lead oxides, commodities that are then reused for the production of new batteries.
The technology was developed at Imperial College London as part of an EPSRC-UKRI-funded research project led by Prof David Payne. Dr Ola Hekselman of Imperial College London, a co-inventor of the IP and currently CEO and Co-founder of Solveteq, was awarded a Faraday Institution Entrepreneurial Fellowship in 2019 with the goal of commercialising the technology.
The Entrepreneurial Fellowship has enabled Dr Hekselman to spin out the company and take it to its current investment-ready stage. The funding allowed technology development and scale up from the lab to a first bench-scale continuous-operation prototype, processing 1kg/hr of lead paste from used LABs. Technology improvements were achieved to further reduce the process costs, meet the needs of the commercial collaborators and offer an alternative to the incumbent high-temperature smelting method.
During the fellowship Solveteq conducted an in-depth analysis of the environmental, economic and operational advantages of the technology relative to current technology: reduction in compliance costs, energy consumption and pollution controls, which are key operational parameters for recyclers. Additional impact may be achieved thanks to the lower setup costs and relatively ease-of-deployment of Solveteq’s solution. This could contribute to decentralising the market, reducing costs and carbon footprint of used LAB collection and allow the UK market to become more competitive.
Thanks to the Fellowship, Solveteq has built a strong network of industry partners, with collaborations in Europe, Middle East, Africa and the US, further cementing its route to market. Four market-leading industry partners have been sharing knowledge and industry know-how and were involved in the prototype design phase, ensuring product market-fit. They have expressed their interest in becoming Solveteq’s early adopters and future customers.
The technology development has been supported by subsequent funding from the UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund, and commercial and engineering support is currently being provided by the Greater London Authority. These opportunities were unlocked by progress made during the Fellowship and are putting the company on a more secure path to commercialisation.
Solveteq was recognised as one of the disruptive companies in the lead recycling market by Reuters in April 2021 and the technology was included in the revised guidelines for sustainable recycling of lead batteries for COP26.
Solveteq’s next scale-up stage includes building a minimal viable product demonstrator on an industrial partner’s site in 2022, followed by an industrial-scale pilot plant by 2024.
The affordability and modular design of Solveteq’s innovation make it a suitable solution for use in emerging economies, where informal recycling practices are responsible for uncontrollable emissions of lead to the environment. Informal lead recycling in these regions is considered the most polluting industry in the world (The Blacksmith Institute, 2016). A recent report by UNICEF and Pure Earth (July 2020) estimated that up 30% of children worldwide (800 million) are suffering from lead poisoning. Solveteq aims to make a positive impact on these societal and environmental issues.
We recognise the step-change potential of Solveteq’s innovation. Despite its early stage, Solveteq addresses critical issues that the lead recycling industry is facing. The successful collaboration will position Solveteq as forebearers of a green, disruptive technology for lead recycling.”
One of Solveteq’s partners
Further reading: BEST Magazine.
Success story published July 2021.