Increasing Traceability of Responsibly and Sustainably Produced Raw Materials With a Geo-Based Fingerprinting Method for Battery Materials

When use of fossil fuels is decreased, the demand for battery materials will increase rapidly. At the same time, raw materials are expected to be mined and refined sustainably. Finland is at the forefront of making this happen. A functioning traceability solution for battery materials could create a competitive edge for Finnish mining operators using sustainable mining operations.

When a battery material is processed, batches from several sources often get mixed due to global trade and the geographical centralisation of the processing. Each battery mineral deposit has its own ‘fingerprint’, i.e. it has a unique mineralogical and geochemical composition.

For the last couple of years, research has been carried out in Finland on how this fingerprint can be identified, and how far into the production process the fingerprint remains distinguishable. This research aims to determine how accurately the origin of a battery material can be determined based on its fingerprint. The research project ‘Sustainable processing and traceability of battery metals, minerals and materials’ (BATTRACE) arose from the industry’s need to trace the origin of metals used for batteries and make battery production sustainable. Since the start of the project, Finnish industry operators, the Geological Survey of Finland GTK and VTT have contributed to its development.

Tracing origin at the material sourcing stage

Several value chain traceability solutions are already available on the market. These solutions are often data-aggregators, based on collecting and merging information from several value chain sources and information systems. These solutions are assumed to provide accurate information on the origin of materials, but in reality, the validity of this information cannot be guaranteed. A geo-based fingerprinting method could help with this problem.

“The fingerprinting method could be used to find out if the analytical composition of a battery material corresponds to its assumed origin. The method could primarily be used as a tool to verify the origin of a battery material at the procurement stage. As the fingerprinting method does not rely on data from other information systems, it can be used together with any other traceability solutions to verify the validity of materials’ origin. This means there is a demand for it, and if the method is sufficiently reliable, it also has commercial potential,” says Harri Kaikkonen from GTK.

A fingerprint is not enough

For a tracing method to have an impact on sustainability, it must be viable for use on a global scale. Sustainability in mining requires the consideration of several dimensions, e.g. the environment, occupational safety, the ethics of operations and the social operating environment. Metal production methods also affect the sustainability of material production. Optimised production processes are required to extract metals from ore and to process them into raw materials supplied to battery material producers.

“The battery industry needs cleaner and more processed raw materials than the traditional metal industry. Traditional processes usually use concentrates to produce elemental metals, whereas battery production requires metal salts such as nickel and cobalt sulphates,” says the head of the research team, Päivi Kinnunen from VTT.

Competitive edge for Finnish battery and raw material production

Finland has both battery metal mines and operational and planned battery chemical and battery plants. Finland has the largest nickel mine in the EU, and it is the only Member State with cobalt mine production. Lithium production will start in the near future. In addition, also copper, which is another battery metal, is produced in Finland, and Finland also has graphite deposits.

The BATTRACE project aims to create new technologies that enable mining operations to be made more sustainable, both domestically and internationally. The project also aims to support the Finnish mining industry’s competitive edge.

“Finnish mines have an excellent reputation as sustainable operators, and this also encourages and enables them to set the standard for the entire industry in traceability. As traceability improves, Finnish mining operators can take advantage of having a smaller carbon footprint than their competitors and increase demand for their products on the market,” says Kaikkonen.

Once enough information and experience have been gathered on the practical application of the traceability method being developed at GTK, the method could be expanded for metals and materials used for purposes other than batteries.

VTT and GTK will carry out the public research activities of the BATTRACE project between 2020 and 2023. The BATTRACE Consortium also include The Finnish Minerals Group and Finnish Battery Chemicals, Keliber Technology, Metso-Outotec, Valmet Automation, Latitude 66 Cobalt, Grafintec, Mawson and FinnCobalt as industry partners.

Learn more about the BATTRACE project by reading the report published by the GTK in the spring of 2022.