At first, they were among 5,000 start-up hopefuls. Then, they were shortlisted to a group of 100. Being among that chosen cohort, both Leon Farrant and Dr Reza Katal rubbed shoulders a few times while searching for a prospective co-founder. But over 14 weeks in a six-month programme organised by talent investor Entrepreneur First (EF), the duo realised they kept coming back to each other.
“We kept on sitting and having lunch and coffee with each other, and we actually had much more in common than we thought. So we obviously formed the friendship,” says 36-year-old Farrant in a recent interview with The Edge Singapore.
Despite having different ideas at the start, the Kenyan-born Farrant was immediately floored by Katal’s passion for environmental protection — a cause he too feels strongly for. “In our industry, you have scientists who like to do things in the lab and you have investors who don’t have a deep science background. Reza immediately intimidated and impressed me because he was a combination of both.”
Originally from Iran, 32-year-old Katal had spent years studying chemical and environmental engineering, collecting multiple degrees along the way. With industry experience in his homeland, Turkey and Vienna, Katal arrived in Singapore in 2015 to begin his PhD in environmental engineering at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where he graduated last year.
In February, the two were ready to face the programme’s reviewers. Their idea? A novel method of recycling lithium-ion batteries — a type of rechargeable battery powering nearly everything from electric cars to laptops — at a speed two to three times faster than today’s technology. The name for their material science energy company? Green Li-ion.
Perhaps with the onset of Covid-19, the “very bad time” saw EF Singapore fund among the 10 companies instead of the usual 40, says Farrant. Green Li-ion was one of them.
Describing exactly what Green Li-ion does will require some technical know-how. Farrant attempts to break down a decade of science behind his company — which he jokingly refers to as “green lion” for simplicity — but with a stated purpose that is doing its part for this planet.
“A lot of people believe that you can just throw batteries away into the trash, and you can’t because they’re combustible. They’re detrimental to the environment and they need to be discharged. So that’s a misconception,” says Farrant.
Furthermore, batteries in its current composition cannot be produced forever. “Precious metals in batteries are running out and they’re finite. The reserves are as little as 25 years for some of those batteries so they’re not going to be around forever unless we change or find a new way to produce them,” he claims. Singapore is particularly at risk, adds Farrant. “Lastly, 95% of all batteries go into landfills… Singapore’s landfills are running out by 2035, 10 years earlier than expected.”
The invention of lithium-ion batteries today can be traced back to 1985 when Japanese chemist Akira Yoshino developed the first prototype. Japanese electronics giant Sony Corp released the first commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991, and the lightweight battery now powers phones, laptops, cordless power tools and electric vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries were even used by NASA to power its Curiosity rover, which was launched to Mars in 2011.
Farrant says there are six popular types of lithium-ion batteries in use today. Present-day battery recycling programmes can process one or two types, but not all of them simultaneously. “What that means is when you collect the batteries, you must first sort all the batteries. If you have any impurity, a battery that goes in that’s not supposed to be there, your process is impacted,” he says.
“They either concentrate on the purification or the separation of one type of precious metal, like cobalt, lithium or nickel. So, they do that and they are the best in their class at doing one or two of those,” adds Farrant.
However, those methods are focused only on extracting raw metal. Green Li-ion said they have developed the GLMC-1, a multi-cathode processor capable of recycling used lithium-ion batteries. They claim this process will be much faster than current battery recycling methods.
With Katal’s hydrometallurgical process, the patented multi-cathode processor and control unit GLMC-1 is capable of handling multiple types of lithium-ion batteries. The GLMC-1 also recovers cathode metal salts without separating the metal elements, speeding up the recycling process by two to three times while producing 99.9% pure cathodes.
“We’re creating a cathode, which is more profitable. It’s more expensive to buy a cathode than it is to buy precious metal in nearly every instance because it’s a manufactured good, as opposed to just raw metal,” claims Farrant. The GLMC-1 is also less harmful to the environment than current recycling processes. “Lastly, our process is a closed loop technology. So it means it keeps everything in the system and we have zero negative environmental discharge.”
Some traditional methods include pyrometallurgy, which separates metals by adjusting heat in a furnace “the size of a house”, says Farrant. Compared to mining, Green Li-ion’s solution saves approximately five tonnes of CO2 per tonne of precious metals or cathode materials extracted.
“Battery recycling has quite a large supply chain and the ecosystem is quite complex,” Farrant continues. “We supply the recycling companies with a technology to quadruple their profitability and lower their carbon footprint… and we have a profit share agreement with them. Then they take that end product — the cathode — and sell it to a cathode manufacturer.”
He continues: “The best way to think about it is that we facilitate the transition from an e-recycler to a manufacturer.”
Singapore generates more than 60,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) — which describes discarded electrical or electronic devices — each year. Under the National Environment Agency’s (NEA) new e-waste management plans, batteries will be collected and recycled with increasing targets over time.
The Resource Sustainability Act, which came into effect from July 1, spells out regulations to reduce food, packaging and e-waste in Singapore. From 2022, producers of electrical and electronic products will be required to submit an annual report declaring the weight and quantity of products collected and sent for reuse, recycling or disposal.
Green Li-ion is currently in talks with all six of Singapore’s main e-waste recycling companies and major global e-recycling players in Dubai and China to supply GLMC-1 to their facilities. Through partnering TES, the largest e-waste recycler in Singapore, Green Li-ion’s first GLMC1 will be ready to begin operations in October, with the second slated to begin in January 2021.
“We’ve chosen Singapore as our first hub because we believe that Singapore is going to support our technology. There’s no reason why Singapore can’t be a hub for battery recycling,” says Farrant, who moved here from Australia in 2011.
To date, Green Li-ion has raised US$400,000 (S$549,146) in pre-seed funding, the highest among the 10 start-ups selected at EF Singapore 2020. One of their first investors is HAX, the hardware start-up accelerator owned by SOSV, a US venture capitalist firm. Professor Seeram Ramakrishna, chair of the Circular Economy Task Force at NUS, serves on Green Li-ion’s advisory board.
From here, Farrant and Katal hope to expand their Singapore team, now numbering just three. The duo are in the midst of hiring a Singaporean automation engineer. “We’re at the scaling stage now. We’ve got a few engineers in Shenzhen. We’re madly trying to interview [applicants], we’re looking for interns from the different universities. We’re just in that stage where we’re trying to get the team on board and grow quickly,” says Farrant.
The co-founders have “ambitious goals” for the company. “We’re shooting to deploy 92 of our machines in 13 major locations across Southeast Asia, Europe, North America and South and East Africa… We think we can have cumulative revenue of more than $1 billion by the end of FY2024,” he claims.
“For zero batteries to go into our landfill but 100% to be rejuvenated into reusable cathodes, it’s a challenge. But if there’s anywhere we can achieve it, it’s Singapore,” says Farrant. “The government is strong enough here and this could be the first country where it’s done. That’s why it’s a strong launchpad for us.”