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Innovative recycling for the lithium-ion batteries of the future

Interview - October 26, 2021

Founded in 1969, Asaka Riken possesses unique and protected technology to recover valuable elements from lithium-ion batteries (LiBs), which are set to be used exponentially more as the world transitions towards electric vehicles. In this interview, president, Yusaku Yukita, explains that whilst other recycling companies often use rough processes such as crushing and burning to recycle LiBs with the goal of extracting metals like nickel, Asaka Riken is aiming to be able to recover 100% of the materials in LiB to then be reused in other LiB. Now established as the forerunner in LiB recycling, M. Yukita says that Asaka Riken’s eyes are firmly set on the future, with the company recognizing the need for flexibility and innovation as the LiB industry rapidly develops.

YUSAKU YUKITA, REPRESENTATIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO OF ASAKA RIKEN CO., LTD.
YUSAKU YUKITA | REPRESENTATIVE DIRECTOR AND CEO OF ASAKA RIKEN CO., LTD.

Japan lacks natural resources such as minerals and precious metals. As such, throughout its history, Japan has imported raw materials from other countries such as China, South Africa, or Australia. Because of this dependency on imports, Japanese enterprises have been forced to maximize the use of natural resources, thereby developing recycling technologies to maximize raw material utilization. How has Japan’s lack of raw materials impacted the development of recycling technologies?

It is important for Japanese companies to recycle valuable metals. In terms of the technical level of recycling, each area has its nice technology, all of whom have great techniques. For example, in the USA, they have a proper union for recycling and their recycling level is therefore very advanced.

Japan is an industrial economy where many companies operate simultaneously. To a large extent, each of these companies is unique. This is especially relevant when dealing with precious metals, where the technology that has been cultivated for centuries is extremely advanced. For example, Japan has been a major producer of semiconductors, a sector in which a large quantity of precious metal is used. Once manufacturers produce a given item, they always come up with a sizable process to utilize and transform waste. Therefore, many manufacturers and operators need recycling services, such as ours, to collect used or unused materials.

 

The increasing use of Lithium-Ion Batteries (LiB) worldwide has been driven by electrification in the automotive field. However, recycling LiB batteries remains a challenge due to the complex ingredients found in these batteries. How can your company and your industry help address this challenge?

Saying that we cannot recycle LiB is an extreme opinion. Today, we have the technology to recycle LiB in a safe and reasonable manner. The technology that we use and apply for the recovery of valuable elements from used or spent LiB is actually not that special, nor is our own invention. This technology belongs to the field of hydrometallurgy and utilizes a solvent extraction process. While this technology is known to various companies, not all firms employ the same process. At Asaka Riken, we have developed our own LiB recycling technology and no other company utilizes the same technique.

The true problem when recycling LiB comes from recycling cost. The industry is unable to lower the cost of recycling because each company tends to focus on its own specific segment. Specialists agree in saying that to have a truly competitive electric vehicle, manufacturers must lower the cost of the battery. This is especially relevant when considering that 1/3 of the cost of an EV comes from the battery.

Because of the multitude of components that are utilized in the production of a battery for  EV,  including cathode, anode, separator, and extra-light solutions, no company will be capable of resolving that problem alone. In other words, to address that challenge, we must collaborate. To lower the cost, we also need to think about which way the business should be directed. Most people think that recycling occurs only after the manufacturing process is completed. However, it is essential to take into account the materials and components that are utilized before and during production.

Furthermore, we must consider our purpose for recycling. Is it to lower cost? Is it to achieve SDGs or is it just for reputation? At Asaka Riken, we prioritize addressing SDGs. We aim to create a system that can stop overusing materials and limited resources by creating a circular and virtuous economy. In order to successfully realize a circular economy, we must not only recover our own valuable elements but also assist our suppliers, such as cathode manufacturers, in recycling their own materials. Currently, we are trying to recycle the valuable elements of LiB to re-utilize them in new LiB. We are not simply looking at developing the technology ourselves, rather, we are trying to find the partners to cooperate and co-develop said technology. To utilize the words of an expert from our field: ‘no one company can accomplish this alone.’

 

In 2015, the United Nations established the SDGs to promote the creation of a “better and more sustainable future.” Following that, governments passed a series of policies to regulate the environmental impact of the private sector. How can Asaka Riken assist its clients in meeting environmental targets?

In order to meet said regulations, we need to recycle almost all of the materials used in LiB while producing less waste during the recycling process. There are two ways of recovering valuable metals. The first is by using pyrometallurgy, which employs fire. The second is hydrometallurgy, which uses chemicals. At Asaka Riken, our expertise is in hydrometallurgy.

When talking about “recovering materials,” I think we should be very careful and sensitive to what we mean exactly by the word “recovery.” The point is to address if we are aiming for 100% recovery or not. We are currently aiming to use LiB recycled materials for new LiB processes, which means that we aim to recover 100% of the materials from all the metals and components used in the production process. Currently, we are unable to re-utilize 100% of the materials and must therefore dispose of some of them. While the disposal is safe and has a limited environmental impact, it could be regarded as our goal of LiB to LiB.  Looking at the future, our aim is to achieve our target of LiB to LiB in accordance with environmental regulations.

We still lack the capacity to fully recycle the large LiBs found in electric vehicles, so our current focus is on waste in process and the smaller LiBs found in home appliances. Recycling companies tend to opt for the rough process of burning and crushing used LiBs for recycling. However, they only recycle metals like cobalt and nickel because they can be resold at a high price. When I ask, “What about the rest? Where is the lithium and the other materials?” The answer is that extracting lithium is too difficult because it is such a sensitive material and too many chemicals are needed for it to be recycled. While we know that other companies are only recycling LiBs to extract the nickel and cobalt, it is simply not LiB to LiB, nor is it aligned with the SDGs.

 

You talked about the circular economy among industrial fields. From a macro-perspective, how do you think Japan’s industry, and the global industry by extension, can be organized to create that circular economy within the industrial field? What steps do you think need to be taken?

I may have already answered half of your question. But, I believe that Japan had a lot of bad experiences in terms of globalization. If we look at consumer electronics for example, Japanese companies used to have very superior quality TVs. Ironically, the problem was that their TVs were of too high quality, and therefore had a high price. Later, other companies from places like South Korea imitated their products and sold them at a cheaper price, cutting into their global market share. Japanese companies focused on quality over function, which was ultimately their downfall in my view. For consumers, quality was not the first issue, people can still enjoy watching lower quality TVs. Japan has learned a lot from its collective experience competing abroad. Namely, that one company alone cannot compete globally, but needs to cooperate with local companies to understand their needs and how to add value. LiBs for EVs are a great opportunity for Japanese companies because of the sheer scale of the movement. At the moment, it is not too daunting to orchestrate various global companies to work together. The important question is, “Who should be the leader?” I don’t believe this is our role, but we can certainly contribute. If we are truly ready to embrace a “LiB to LiB” recycling model, I don’t think it would be very difficult to form a consortium to reach that goal. For Japan, it is the only and best way forward.

 

Can you give us a global perspective on the Lithium-ion Battery market? What is your international strategy to take advantage of the growth of Lithium-ion Batteries?

First of all, LiBs will be key for a sustainable and carbon neutral future. To that end, it’s imperative there is collaboration on a global scale. When we form a consortium, we need to open our eyes and bend our ears to the users and buyers.

This would mark a big departure in tradition for us. In the past, Japanese companies took so much pride in their ways, even as they expanded overseas. But now, the conviction that only Japanese companies can do this is not wise. It is  a matter of who can recycle LiB to LiB first, and most effectively.

If we can initially establish it here in Japan, overseas companies will almost certainly invite us to work with them. Our ideal business model is being invited rather than competing. As a result of being international, there are going to be more meaningful offers and ideas. We can use this power for further progress.

 

Is there a specific country or market you consider key that you wish to introduce your technology to? Are you looking for partners when it comes to recycling?

It is difficult to directly answer your question because we have non-disclosure agreements with other parties. LiB recycling is still a very free market. For example, American companies are great at manufacturing cars and batteries, but are not so advanced when it comes to recycling. On the other hand, Europe is advanced when it comes to recycling rules and regulations. They like to talk positively about the regulations, then later figure out exactly how those regulations will be applied. It’s a very exciting area for us.



Aside from recycling, your company has other businesses like precision cleaning for used jigs and other industrial components. On top of that, you work on the regeneration of advanced components, specifically from electronic companies for recovering precious metals. Can you tell us more about these different business lines?

Precious metal recycling has been a part of this company long before I joined. Our company will continue this business because as you know precious metals are incredibly important, not only for their efficiency, but in terms of price as well. Let’s take the combustion engine for an example. While it may be on its way out as we shift to EV, it will not immediately disappear. It will survive for more than 10 years, don’t you think so? A large quantity of precious metals like platinum, palladium, or rhodium are required for car catalysts. You see companies trying to substitute these precious metals with chemicals or other metals, but they are simply not as effective. As long as the precious metal need remains and the sector is still surviving, our company will improve our technical level to remain competitive. As I was in a trading company for a long time before Asaka, I have some reservations about saying this, but it’s important I acknowledge that recycling can be damaging for resource producing countries. The honest wish of South Africans companies would be for us not to realize 100% recycling; otherwise, they will not be able to continue to run their mining businesses. Similarly, crude oil companies may suggest not to pursue EVs for 100% since it will greatly impact fossil fuels. That being said, I think that recycling cannot be done perfectly, and that some primary materials should be involved.

To return to precious metals, I think South Africa and Russia would be happier if they continued to dig up fresh precious metals even if it exhausts their deposits. Eventually people will recycle, it is inevitable.

 

How do you think your background of 33 years with Mitsubishi has helped you or is helping you in your position now? What kind of fresh perspective does it bring you in this business?

Yes, I am definitely using my experience from Mitsubishi. I think if I had not worked at Mitsubishi, I would not have the perspective that I have now. I experienced a lot through there and learned a great deal concerning energy, metals, and their production. Namely, the importance of balance between production and consumption. 

Since I’ve joined  Asaka Riken, I believe that the company’s atmosphere has changed a lot. Asaka had already developed great technologies as its foundation, but was quite locally focused and mainly concentrated on precious metals. A great change for our company happened in 2011; it was a milestone. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami disaster left terrible devastation in its wake and Fukushima was seriously damaged. I am sorry for what happened and what the people had to go through. Before the disaster, it was clear that the government authorized the building of nuclear power plants in the affected areas in order to reduce power plants by fossil fuels like coal and oil. However, the disaster sparked a national conversation about safe and clean energy; people’s opinions changed about it, and many now oppose nuclear power. The government decided to give subsidies to help revitalize the areas impacted by the disaster. Asaka took advantage of this opportunity which helped us set up a factory on the coast. The subsidy came with the condition of developing new safe and clean energy; therefore, we decided to study the recovery of rare earths and rare metals. We’ve been studying and researching for over 10 years, and are still shocked by the degree to which rare earths are overlooked. Japan easily forgets our crisis of resources, but I believe the next problem will be rare earth metals again. EV Car motors use more rare earths, which is why we’ve been studying them so diligently. However, it is still difficult to make a profit from them because of their small volume. Therefore, we started to look into other advancements and trends, and came across LiB. If we concentrate on LiB, then we can comply with the regulations that enforce good results for the earth and ecology. We have been focusing on LiBs for about eight or nine years. Many thought that we started too early in this domain, but it proved to be advantageous for us as we do not have many competitors yet. Normally, the recycling process begins with pyrometallurgy, and hydrometallurgy comes after. We started with the latter part, which became our strength. It is a unique approach and I think a lot of people will need us and our expertise.

 

Asaka Riken was founded in 1969 and is a company with a long and storied history. Looking towards the future, what is your midterm strategy to continue your corporate growth?

Our midterm strategy is simply to be seen and continue to be sitting in the center of the LiB consortium. The components of batteries will change, and we need to be prepared for this change. If everything goes well, we can continue to work globally with others at the forefront of this business. We also need to improve our precious metal business, stay informed of increasing regulations, and help both FCVs and EVs in terms of recycled materials. Our two pillars, precious metal development, and LiB research, are our focus. Going beyond these will depend on our investors and stakeholders.

 

As an investor, what would you say is the main competitive advantage of investing in Asaka Riken? What can investors expect once they invest in your company?

We always want to be the frontrunner. Some other big companies may very well catch up with, and embrace LiB recycling, but we will always be the first. Investors can expect our  flexibility and speed. In many cases, it is very difficult for big companies to change their direction quickly. In addition, even if they finally decided to come into the LiB recycling business, it is not going to be easy to catch up because our technologies are protected and constantly improving. We want to motivate investors to invest more in us and eventually increase our capital. In our company, every business is connected to SDGs. The real target is ensuring we are ourselves. I’m often asked about ESG, and I truly believe we can both create shared social value and make our investors happier. They are by no means mutually exclusive concepts.

 

Let us imagine that we come to have this interview again in 10 years. What ambitions or dreams would you like to have achieved? It can be both from a professional or personal perspective.

In ten years, I want to show you that we have been very responsible meeting the SDGs, particularly #7 (affordable and clean energy), #9 (industry innovation and infrastructure), #12 (responsible consumption and production), #13 (climate action), and #17 (partnership and collaboration). I really want to realize this in 10 years. I also want to expand our activities in Europe, America, and Asia. Even if you may not be able to directly recognize our presence or impact, we will be there as a member and collaborator. That is our dream and the clever way of having no enemies, borders, or country. It is a new style for our business and is a very exciting time.  

Personally, I want to be a specialist of a perfect work-life balance through an ideal circular economy, which tells us “sustainability comes from moderate supply and consumption.”

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