Electric Vehicles are not green. Yes, they do not pollute the environment as much as their fossil-fuel engine based counterparts. But they aren’t totally green, as all the metals used in EVs are sourced in the traditional way. But, here is a company that talks about making EVs a bit greener. Attero Recycling, a Noida based start-up, claims to be India’s largest electronic asset management company and world’s most advanced Li-Ion battery recycling company. It has tie ups with almost 90 percent of automobile OEMS in India such as MG Motors, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Tata Motors etc.
In an interview with ET Online,
Nitin Gupta, co-founder and CEO, talks about how the company is helping India reduce import dependence and achieve its green goals. Edited excerpts:
What’s Attero doing?
Attero is India’s largest electronic waste recycling company and globally the best lithium-ion battery recycling company. There are two business verticals: one is an e-waste recycling company, and the second a Li-Ion battery recycling unit. We are the largest players in the e-waste recycling ecosystem in India and are the leaders and pioneers, so to say. We take back end-of- life laptops, refrigerators, mobile phones, washing machines – essentially everything that turns on electricity – and recycle it using technology developed by us in India and patented globally.
We recycle all these products in the most environmentally friendly manner and extract pure gold, pure silver, pure copper, pure aluminium, pure iron etc, and put them back in the economy in a circular economy fashion. The purity of the metal we extract is equal to what comes out of a virgin mine. For example the gold that comes out of our recycling facility is 99.99 percent pure. We have also extracted some rare earth metals, for example Neodymium, which is present in magnets, hard drives etc.
On Business Model
We take back waste and recycle those in an environment-friendly manner. We extract useful materials and metals that we send back in circular economy fashion for the industry to use. The company is profitable and cash-flow positive and we are PE funded. We are funded by Kalaari Capital, DFJ, IFC which is part of the World Bank, and a few other PE players in India and the US. The company is growing at 150 percent YoY, both bottom line and top line. Attero is the only e-waste company in the world to get carbon credits per tonne of electronic waste recycled. All the top electronic OEMs like Samsung, LG, Whirlpool, Godrej etc are partners of Attero.
On Li-Ion Batteries
Li-Ion batteries are becoming ubiquitous. They are already being used in cell phones, laptops, consumer electronics, and some industrial applications. They are increasingly being used in telecom towers, solar storages, and in electric vehicles. There are two challenges with Li-Ion batteries – the first challenge is what happens to these Li-Ion batteries when they come to the end of their life. They are hazardous in nature and somebody needs to ensure that they are being recycled in an environmentally friendly manner so that they do not pollute air, water or soil.
The second challenge is that almost 30 percent of the Li-ion cell is the metals that make it, which includes cobalt, lithium, nickel, graphite, manganese, copper and others. Each of these metals have either ESG issues or supply security issues, or both. Take cobalt for example. 70 per cent of the world’s cobalt is being mined in DR Congo region which is driven by child labour and terrorist regimes. At the current known utilisation rate, we will run out of cobalt by 2030. Traditional Lithium mining is a water-guzzling process. To give some context, in traditional mining to extract, let’s say, 1 tonne of Lithium requires more than 500,000 gallons of water which causes a lot of social problems and ecological problems. Similarly, for graphite.
So there is a supply security and ESG concerns around critical metals that are required for Li-Ion batteries. When you combine both these problems, of the end-of-life Li-Ion batteries that need to be recycled in an environment friendly manner plus supply security and ESG concerns, then we come to the solution that with a technology to recycle Li-Ion batteries we can not only solve the waste problem but also make sure that we become a significant player in supplying green batteries. Because, we are not extracting or excavating earth to get these metals. We are running a commercial platform where we are recycling all kinds of Li-Ion batteries ranging from a cell phone, all the way to a battery of an electric bus of various shapes and sizes. So today, we are recycling Li-Ion batteries, from a weight perspective: 30 grams in weight all the way to 750 kg weight. We are recycling Li-Ion batteries, whether it is from telecom towers – we pick up a lot of batteries from Reliance Jio – or from electric vehicles like MG Motors, Tata Motors, Hyundai etc; or from consumer electronics makers including Samsung, Acer, and others.
We extract 98 percent of pure battery-grade cobalt, and pharmaceutical-grade Lithium carbonate, which apart from being used in Li-Ion batteries is also used in psychotropic drugs. We also extract battery-grade nickel, battery-grade graphite, battery-grade manganese dioxide, battery-grade copper, aluminium etc. So, essentially, the entire Li-Ion is being recycled and more than 98 percent of all these metals are extracted, which goes back to the industry. If you look across the world, everybody who is into Li-Ion battery recycling is at less than 60 percent recycling efficiency whereas we have more than 98 percent efficiency. There is a significant technology gap we have created, and for the same we have 20 patents in the US and in Europe; and we have applied for many more patents too. Attero is also sourcing e-rickshaw batteries from a number of companies.
The Government of India is pushing the sale of sales of electric vehicles primarily for two reasons – one is for environmental concerns and the second is because oil is a huge forex import bill for the country. Unfortunately, almost 30 percent of the value of the battery is from the value of the metals and almost 50 percent of the value of the vehicle (EV) is the value of the battery. What this means is that significant contributors to these EVs are cobalt, lithium etc. India does not have any source of cobalt or lithium. Essentially, 97 percent of Lithium supplies are controlled by China. If we accommodate a proper recycling policy for Li-Ion batteries, then we can ensure we get enough lithium, cobalt, nickel that we don’t have to bother purchasing from outside, and we can really become self independent or Atmanirbhar.
Do we have enough companies to handle the Li-Ion waste generated?
The short answer is no. There is no other company in India, apart from Attero, which today takes the Li-Ion batteries and extracts pure gold, pure cobalt and pure nickel. There are companies which are exporting these batteries or are crushing them. So from a technological perspective, Atteo is largely undisputed in this space, and a pioneer. Having said that, for a country like India to make sure that recycling becomes the focus, the government is obviously working to make sure that investment flows into the sector and the capacity increases.
On Solar Panel Waste
The typical lifespan of solar panels is about 25 years. So, in our opinion, the market for solar panel recycling will start picking up in the next 3 to 5 years. There are two sources of solar panels for recycling. One is the installed solar panels which come for recycling, and the second is the imported solar panels which come dead on arrival. These dead on arrival solar panels will be of smaller quantum, the larger quantum will be when the solar panels will be replaced because of technological advancement, or when they will reach the end of life.
On Future Growth Prospects
Funding is not a challenge for us. We are cash-flow positive and we are a profit-making company. There are three business aspects (for Attero): First is, the electronic waste business is already growing significantly, almost 150% YoY. The second is, Li-Ion battery business is growing significantly, almost 200 per cent YoY and the growth is only going to grow because of the EVs coming in as well. Third is solar power recycling, which will start booming in 3 to 5 years.