Features/ Interviews/ Discussing the future of E-waste Recycling ft. Attero | TG Talkies

Discussing the future of E-waste Recycling ft. Attero | TG Talkies

Attero Recycling is a leading e-waste recycling company in India that deals with the world, taking out precious metals from waste and putting them back into the system. This process is a lot harder than it sounds. That is why we sat down with Mr. Nitin Gupta, Co-Founder of Attero, to understand the world of e-waste recycling, the challenges we face in this field and how this company might just lead the game in the years to come. 

Akaash Bhadra: I know EV is all about being silent, and EVs about being fast in 0-100, but today, we are actually gonna talk about EV recycling, and today, if we have none other than Attero joining in and in as the face of Attero Mr Nitin Gupta, the co-founder of Attero is here. Attero is India’s leading e-waste and Lithium-ion battery recycling company, and their innovation has been able to let him recover valuable resources, like cobalt and lithium, which are essential parts of making electronics or batteries or even whatever, you know, small amounts of electronic device that you can think of in today’s world. And they also are also promoting a circular economy, which you will get to in some time. And also helps in reducing the environmental impact, which is which is done due to the reason of lithium extraction and cobalt extraction. 

Nitin Gupta: I am passionate about technology and sustainability. I love adventure, the outdoors, trying new things, and being an innovator at heart. 

A: How would you take your work life as the co-founder of Attero?

N: One word is hectic, second is enjoyable. We have our ups and downs. But I love what we are doing. Every bit of it, every second of it., Both the lows and the highs are part of it. And I think what is driving us, or driving me in particular or on a regular basis is the vision of the mission that we are following is much beyond us, right? So in that aspect, we are, or I'm giving it all of my own to make sure that it succeeds and that comes to its challenges, at some points some time which you have to deal with. Very akin to, I would say adventure, Akaash. So let me take it back and give you an example right. So the first time I went skydiving in New York, okay? So skydiving, when you do it, you initially have a thrill, saying it is a great thing and you are going to do it. But once you sit in the airplane and decide to jump, it's the more scary moment in life, right? Once you jump, it is the most beautiful moment of your life. So life changes from moment to moment, second to second. You just go with the flow and enjoy it. 

A: So till you don’t jump on the actual cause and do it, there is very little anticipation of the moment. 

N: Skydiving was normally easier. 

A: Okay. It has an easy outcome. Either the parachute opens or not. 

N: It will open for sure. When you do your first jump, you are doing it with the instructor. It's not a solo. With the instructor, you know that you have the hands of somebody who's experienced it and done it themselves multiple times. There is a 99.99% chance the parachute will open, and there are, by the way, two buttons to the parachute, so if one malfunctions, the other one will open, and the chances of the parachute malfunctioning are extremely low. In the case of Entrepreneurship, you are all on your own. With your team and the co-founders, so things can go wrong. You have to solve it. There is no expert in the room to solve it for you. Things go wrong 9 out of 10 times. So it is the complete opposite.

A: Part of being an Entrepreneur, I guess. 

N: Absolutely!

A: Alright, so what would a typical day for you look like? As an entrepreneur, as a person who is like more than entrepreneurship, it is the space that you are trying to attack. It's so brand new, especially in the Indian landscape. With the limited education that you know we have, according to EV and recycling,  how would you describe your typical day? Like, you know, managing this entire company in this new hemisphere together? 

N: Exhilarating. It is very exciting. Every day, there is a new challenge, something, some problem we have sorted out, or something new to look to. And I like challenges and adventure. So, every day is a new learning, you get to implement your learnings and see progress, so that is the most exciting part. And the industry that we are in Akaash, like you said, is entirely new, very nascent. Not only are you learning every day, but you are able to sort of put those things into action and see the results.

A:  Okay Understood. A Role model in the business world?

N: Elon Musk.

A: Well, he is an eccentric personality in the auto field. So, great call. 

N: He is one personality but the gentleman has basically done whatever he thinks is right and made a significant difference to the world in the future through his own intellectual and monetary achievements. I think great achievements from his part. 

A: What could you say your most proud accomplishment would be, let's say, apart from Attero?

N: Apart from Attero well, I am an active cyclothon participant and a half marathon runner. I pride myself by that. In the last 12 months, I have done two half marathons and two cyclathons. I lost significant weight before that as well, so on that physical front I am very proud of what I have achieved.

A: It is so good to see that you are so active and have such an adventurous life outside you know, the work.

A: So now we have a little bit of understanding of you. I would like us to now type into Attero and to this entire EV recycle business because as much as people don't want to talk about it or in India, we think like, it is not a necessity, I have seen like you know, worrisome videos where e-waste is almost nurturing the GDP of an entire country like South East Asian countries that are having to suffer with e-waste and are being turned out. When I see visions like this, I fear that, you know, India might also become a possibility like this because this is the biggest market in the world in making right now. So, with all these in mind, I want to know what Attero is like, if you have to give Attero as an explanation to somebody who barely understands EVs, how would you say Attero is, and how would you say it came into existence in your own mind?

N: Sure, pretty, very good question Aakash. So, Attero essentially is a deep tech company with a very strong focus on sustainability.  As a company, today, we have more than 45 granted Global patents on recycling technology developed by us in India. The patents are across Europe and Asia, and many more are being applied here. We are the only recycling and e-waste company in the world that generates carbon credits per ton of recycled waste, right? Our carbon cryptology is approved by the United Nations and is based on the fact that the amount of energy involved in Attero’s processes to extract pure gold, pure cobalt, pure lithium, and aluminium is significantly lower than the amount of energy involved in extracting these metals from either a virgin mine or any other secondary source of the material. Simply speaking to a layman in the EV industry or outside the EV industry, What Attero, Attero, is the nuts and bolts that make the EV world move around. We are part of the supply chain which makes the batteries. Batteries are the most critical functions of the entire energy transition theme that is playing out. Whether it is the electric vehicle out there, your energy storage systems, or what I have, your batteries have the most critical function, out of that, the most important technology today is lithium-ion battery Technology, largely because it has the highest energy density, fastest, charging time and lowest discharging time. Almost 45% of the cost of a lithium-ion battery comes from the metals that make it up, which include Cobalt, lithium Nickel, graphite, and manganese. Attero is the supply of these metals in the supply chain at a much more reduced carbon footprint and a much greener source.

A: Okay, so your, so basically, what I understand is the process by which you take back from the batteries that are used. Let's say, let us restrict ourselves to the EV market now. Whatever earth metal that you guys are going to extract is taken back and put back into the slider.

N: Absolutely. Basically, we produce pure cobalt, pure lithium carbonate, pure graphite, gold, silver, copper, and aluminium, but to produce all those metals, we do not dig up the earth.

A: So you said that you put whatever metals you take back from recycling, and you try to put them back into the system. So now my question is that normally, recycling something and putting it back into the system is a challenge where the cost of the recycled material does not match the cost price of buying it new, which is something the plastic industry is facing, no matter what we do the recycling plastic is cheap is always costlier than new plastic. So, is this a question that you face even today? 

N: Not really

A: Okay, Okay. And if not, then?

N: Plastics and metals have a fundamental difference, okay? No matter what you do, you cannot get virgin-quality plastic from waste plastic. You can get virgin-quality plastic, but you cannot get virgin-quality plastic. Metals, on the other hand. Pick any metal, pick gold, pick silver, pick copper, aluminium, cobalt, pick any metal. They can be recycled back to the virgin form, chemically, metallurgically, and mechanically. Shape-wise, size-wise, colour-wise, whatever it is an infinite number of times. 

So, there is a fundamental difference between plastic and metals with veracity. Take a very simple example: Everybody in India knows about gold, the gold jewellery that all of us are so used to can be remelted and recycled an infinite number of times. It does not know its malleability properties, it does not lose its metallurgical properties. It does not lose colour or any other properties, so to say, it is right. Now, the call to the technology and the product processes that Attero has developed and patented globally, our cost for recycling various EV batteries and extracting pure cobalt, Nickel carbonate and graphite is significantly lower than the cost of mining these metals, okay? So those are two different factors. Because of the nature of the metals the output is as good as new, is new basically, not forget as good as basically. Second, due to Attero’s technological advances, our cost of recycling and producing these metals is lower than mining. Thirdly, our carbon footprint is lower than mining, so just to give you a reference, the cobalt that we produce has a 68% lower EST footprint compared to whatever comes to various mines in the world. Lithium carbonate has a 78% lower carbon footprint, and obviously (20:09- Word not clear). 

A: Alright, so now that I have the insight that, you know, putting it back in the system where the earth metal is recycled is also, at power, if not cheaper, then getting new earth metal come out, which I think will bring out the success and eventuality of Attero being a regular process of the entire circle. 

Alright, then. We want to go on to the next question. Could you tell me what constitutes e-waste? Would you like to explain an understanding of what e-waste is and what e-waste you churn as an organisation? 

N: We, Attero, are a leader in Electronic waste and battery recycling, right? The Kind of products that we handle is anything and everything that runs on electricity. It ranges from a CFL lamp all the way to the washing machine, refrigerator, television, air conditioner, all the small home appliances at home, and all the industrial electrical appliances. Mobiles, phones, laptops and then on the battery side, batteries ranging from 30 grams in weight, which is a typical phone battery, all the way to batteries ranging to 790 kilograms in weight, which is the module of a typical bus battery and everything else in between So on the battery side, there are mobile phone batteries, there are laptop batteries, there are other consumer electronic batteries. There are energy storage batteries, which are coming from solar storage, your inverters or telecom towers. And then there are mobility batteries from two wheelers, four wheelers and large format vehicles. So the entire range of input products we recycle. What we produce is basically 24-carat gold, we produce 99.99% pure silver, we produce 99.99% pure cobalt, tin, aluminium, copper, and pure battery-grade lithium carbonate, which is 99.8% plus. We reproduce through graphite and nickel, then put it back in the commodities market. 

A: I know you can't give your IP away, but what sets it apart? What would you say is helping you gain this much leverage over the rest of the competition, even from a global perspective?

N: There is a single-cell battery pack, the laptop on which I am having this conversation has 8 cells packed together in a battery pack. Your EV has 400-1000 cells packed together. The fundamental unit is the cell. Now, if you open up the cell, there is an anode. The anode is 99% graphite and 1% silica. After the anode, there is a thin layer of aluminium called the anode separator. After that there is an electrolyte, which is a LIFP06 typically. After that, there is a very thin layer of copper called the anode separator, followed by the cathode. The cathode contains lithium, cobalt, nickel, and iron, depending on battery chemistry. When these cells come back to recycling or packs, come back for recycling. The first recycling process is a mechanical recycling process where you shred them and do some sort of density separation. Once you do that, you get two output streams, one of which is the combination of your separator materials and binder materials. In simple English, it contains copper, aluminium, iron, and plastic and the second is a black powder, which basically contains anode materials and cathode active materials. Or, in simple English, it contains graphite, cobalt, nickel, lithium, manganese, and a bit of copper and aluminium, which, in industry parlance, is called black mass. A lot of players in the battery recycling space stop here, they sell black mass.

Now, see that Attero’s first mechanical process is extremely effective in the world of three parameters. First other black masses, there is no loss of cobalt, lithium, or nickel in the copper, aluminium, or iron stream. 

Second, the cost is low and third, we are able to process all kinds of batteries. After this black mass is taken out in Attero’s process, it is then put through a graphite bleaching system. A graphite bleaching system is a chemical process where, again, two outputs come out. One is a liquid, which is graphite-free, and the second is a residue, which contains 94% graphite, 6% Cobalt, nickel, lithium and manganese. Because it is a closed-loop system when this graphite residue is sent further, refined further in the process, and pure graphite comes out, the balance of 6% flows back into the system, so there is no loss. The liquid that comes out is passed through the copper electrowinning system. The copper electrowinning system is pure copper. You have a tank on which side is anode and cathode. Current is flowing to it. At a specific current, copper gets deposited on the cathode. So again, in your output, pure copper comes out, and a solution that is now copper-free and graphite-free. Then, this copper and graphite-free solution is fed into an aluminium and iron bleaching system where aluminium and iron come out. This solution, now copper-free, iron-free, aluminium-free, and graphite-free, is fed into a solvent extraction system where there are 3 outputs coming out. One is a copper sulfate solution, the second is a manganese sulfate solution, and a third is a Nickel sulfate plus nickel solution, so cobalt sulfate solution passes through a carbon filter and is then fed into a cobalt electrorefining setup where pure cobalt comes out. Similarly manganese. Nickel Sulfate and Lithium are again passed through a carbon filter and through a nickel electrowinning system where Nickel comes out, and Lithium is then precipitated using a precipitation technology to get lithium carbonate, right? Now fundamentally, the system we have innovated upon has many many many innovations in this which are very destructive, very simply right. For example, globally, lithium has precipitation limits. And what does precipitation mean? For example, you have a glass of water, and you want to mix sugar in it. After some time, you will not be able to mix sugar, and it will form a residue, that is what precipitation means. Basically replacing the lithium ion with some other ion and lithium falls at the bottom. There are chemical theoretical precipitation limits that we have done away with, with a lot of other innovations we have done, temperature, pressure, which I cant tell you about. So, one part of the second part of innovation is graphite, which is not only carbon purity, but it also has to maintain a specific shape and size. Otherwise, it can't be used back in the anode again we have chemically made sure that we maintain the size.

A: What I understand is there is a mechanism to take out every element at each step of the way. How you do it is the IP that you guys hold to yourselves, and as far as the lithium precipitation goes, you are like the asterisk in the Chemistry book. This is the law, but this is the special law. So, you have taken out the asterisk for all the lithium precipitation.

N: Hahaha... Something like that

A: I wanted to ask you about battery technology in EVs when we come out with manufacturers. They all are different, trying to attain different chemistries, different sorts of technology, and even construction. The fact is, for that matter. So how, as a recycling company, are you on top of the innovation that they bring to the table? More so, now, there are earth metals, there are non-earth metals, and there are so many more mechanisms to take out every element that you go to. There are too many more interesting metal battery combinations that are coming out. So, how are you as an organisation on top of innovation that is brand new to the market?

N: So, a couple of things, right? First, at the core of it, we are an R&D company. At the core of it, we are a technical company, so it is our job to make sure we stay ahead of the curve and continue to develop solutions that will be required tomorrow. So that's the first overarching point that I would like to emphasise here. To do that, to give you some sense, right, there are various battery chemistries, so last to last year, LTO battery technology was launched by Maruti Suzuki. They approached us saying you guys recycle LTO batteries, we said we don't, but we will develop a solution. We developed a solution in two months for LTO battery recycling, and we put that into production as well. Now fundamentally, we treat ourselves as experts in the field of metals, and we continue to develop solutions on both the metallurgical and mechanical side to make sure that any new battery chemistry out there, whether in terms of shape and size or in terms of chemistry or in terms of constituents, right, we are able to sort of recycle it to the best capability possible. So, As an example, battery chemistry ranges from LFP to various NMC, to LCO to LTO, and we are recycling in the plant. You will be hard-pressed to find any other company in the world which is able to recycle LFP batteries profitably, LFP batteries have no cobalt, no nickel. But because we are able to extract lithium and graphite, we are able to recycle them profitably as well. On the other hand, there are solid-state batteries coming up. There are metal layer batteries that are coming up. There are sodium-ion batteries that are coming up. There is the entire thing about hydrogen that's coming up. In our R&D labs, we are already working on all of these. For some, we already have a solution, and for others, we are developing a solution. 

A: It is very interesting that you have also thought of hydrogen because I wanted to ask if hydrogen also has batteries and everything. So, the solution to your battery understanding can range beyond even EVs for that factor. But you are keeping yourself one step ahead of the curve. What would you say are your biggest challenges as an urban miner? Like Attero as a brand. Is there a challenge first of all, and if there is, what would you say would be? 

N: There are always challenges. So, right now, our challenge is to make sure that we continue to scale the organisation up with both the sense of the right leadership team, the right sort of capacities, and the right customers. So we are continuously thinking of what to do next, and then making sure that we deploy our R&D resources into activities that have both a near-term and a longer-term benefit for the company is a continuous R&D challenge. So, continuing to scale and develop future technologies is something that we constantly think about. 

A: So, since you are talking about scaling. A few years back, China stopped taking all of the electronic waste from the United States. They had a complete ban on it, which resulted in the entire e-waste being either transacted to Russia or the southeastern countries, which had two huge crisis problems: the waste being burned out in the open and everything. So, as you scale, would you see India becoming an acceptor of e-waste? A complete factory within itself of e-waste, or should India go in the direction of that? 

N: Not really. So, from a recycling perspective, what India should focus on, in our opinion, is being the high-end refiner of waste. The high-end refiner is different from the recycler. In battery recycling, mechanical recycling be done at various places in the world. Let the black mass be refined in India. Let us produce to the world. Let us produce cobalt, let us produce lithium carbonate. That's a high and refining job. Without any sort of environmental degradation. And that generates high-level jobs. That generates a higher contribution to GDP. Also, that would give metal security. So, from a geopolitical perspective, if India can be the refiner of the world, that's a great position to be in. 

A: Okay, so fine mining or fine recycling is where India should be, according to your perspective. 

N: That's the most tech-heavy piece. And that is the highest arbitrage.

N: Look at what China has done. 

A: Rather than doing all the groundwork.

N: Why do that? China does not own the mines of cobalt, lithium, and graphite. But today, more than 90% of battery-grade cobalt comes from China, and today, more than 90% of battery-grade lithium carbonate hydroxide comes from China. Today, more than 90% of the world’s battery-grade graphite comes from China. They are the world’s refiner. Similarly, India should try and aim to become the world's refiner in the entire EV recycling or the e-waste recycling piece.

A: Actually makes sense because there are a lot of other industries as well who are not trying to go to ground zero and making this up, rather than the fine tuning of it has to be done in India. One last question in the heavy duty aspect of mining. There is something called the producer responsibility approach, where companies take their own approach and make their own recycling elements in-house. So, do you see yourself as a threat to companies doing it themselves, or is your IP so strong that they will come to you, as Maruti Suzuki has approached you?

N: This is a strategy question. So essentially, you will see that because the field is nascent and growing, you will see forward integration and backward integration. It's very enticing for a cell manufacturer to think, “Let me own the cathode piece, let me own the anode piece, let me own the mining piece”. You can go as far back as you want. Or let me own the battery pack piece and let me own the distribution piece. Ultimately, it starts with that, and the world gravitates towards specialisation because the market does not pay you enough to do everything in-house, and you are not the most competent person to do everything in-house. We have seen across industries that specialists for a particular job are the best people for a particular job. So even in this field our IP strength and technology strength is so strong. For an OEM to in-house, this will be sort of word-soft compared to partnering with us.

TopGear Magazine June 2024