Our Integrated Nickel Operations Celebrates 30th Year in the Recycling Business
| Date: 23/07/2021
2020 marked our Integrated Nickel Operations’ 30th year of processing secondary feed including end-of-life materials, production scrap and waste streams.
Today, our Integrated Nickel Operations (INO) is one of the world’s largest processors of secondary nickel and cobalt bearing materials, including super alloy scrap, battery materials, plating residues and spent catalysts. Over the past 30 years, we have built a solid reputation for recycling in the areas of receiving, sampling and the effective recovery of metals contained in end-of-life materials. The secondary materials processed at Sudbury INO are then further refined at our Nikkelverk refinery in Norway. Here, they become finished products with purities amongst the highest in the world.
Our organization is heavily committed to recycling because there exists a direct link between recycling and our Purpose of responsibly sourcing the commodities needed to advance everyday life. By virtue of our commitment, we are helping support a circular supply chain that gives a second life to products that might otherwise be sent to landfill.
Bob Sutherland, Vice President, Custom Feed, for the Nickel business, says, “A strong recycling culture at the smelter, coupled with safety focus and the ability to recover a large suite of metals and platinum group metals (PGMs) through the INO is the backbone of the Custom Feed Business.”
We [the Integrated Nickel Operations] are a market leader in the recycling of nickel, copper, cobalt and platinum group metals since 1990. Aerospace and battery scrap along with plating residues and spent catalysts are the primary sources. In 2020, we processed 20,000 tonnes of recyclables containing 4,600 tonnes of nickel, 2,000 tonnes of cobalt and 800 tonnes of copper.
An Overview of INO’s Recycling Business
The impetus behind the INO's recycling business was the Sudbury Smelter (then named Falconbridge) challenged by reduced reserves, lower grades and escalating costs from its local mines. Consequently, it began actively seeking opportunities to maintain and increase base metal output in matte.
It was also clear that the Sudbury Smelter and Nikkelverk possessed strategic strength in their ability to recover and produce high quality nickel, copper, cobalt, gold, platinum and palladium. Ultimately, this led to the processing of the Recycling business’ first nickel alloy scrap material from the United States in 1990.
Super alloy scrap from the aerospace sector (e.g. jet turbine blades) contains high levels of nickel and cobalt, representing an ideal material for processing. This was the first opportunity to recover and refine these metals and re-position them back for re-use in the same application. Around the same time, the Custom Feed Department was formed to safely and economically source additional feedstocks to fill the open smelting and refining capacities.
“Ensuring the safety of employees and integrity of the smelter and refinery operations has been hardwired into Custom Feed culture since the beginning,” affirms Bob.
Our Recycling team began working closely with the Nickel and Cobalt Marketing teams, which led to two other important opportunities: 1) the treatment of secondary nickel and cobalt bearing catalysts, and nickel and copper rich plating residues, and 2) the recyclable feedstock of the grindings and turnings from the machining and fabrication of nickel alloy components.
As our Custom Feed business developed and evolved, we identified an opportunity to increase secondary feed treatment through the thermal pre-treatment of materials. In 2007, the Sudbury Smelter installed a Pre-Treatment Calcining Facility enabling entry into the battery recycling space. While initially, nickel metal hydride and lithium cobalt oxide batteries were targeted, other nickel and cobalt batteries were later incorporated. The smelter is now a leader in processing pre-treated (discharged and upgraded) Li-Ion batteries in North America.
Investing in the Future Recycling Capabilities
2020 also saw significant capital investment in the recycling space in Sudbury. These investments were for covered rail car unloading facilities, additional thawing capacity and a receiving building to unload and sample secondary materials more efficiently. And on the other side of the world, at our Murrin Murrin refinery in Western Australia, the first secondary units arrived for evaluation and testing.
By responsibly recycling ‘off-spec’ (e.g. defective equipment or parts), end of life and other qualifying materials, we play a vital role in the circular economy, diverting materials from landfill and minimizing environmental impacts by recycling what we can.
As the INO celebrates 30 years of recycling, we continue to seek opportunities to consistently maintain, develop and expand the treatment of third-party primary and secondary materials. The Sudbury Smelter and Nikkelverk continue to process secondary streams from nickel alloys, plating, catalysts and batteries. Year over year, these sites achieve increased throughput to support the primary base metal business.
Recent investments in material handling equipment and facilities in Sudbury shows our commitment to improving sustainable development and to our custom feed business for many years to come. It is also exciting to see Murrin Murrin’s custom feed business growing with a promising future ahead.
With recycling a key enabler in the transition to a low carbon economy, we aim to bring about a step change in our recycling capabilities in the next five years – expanding our global footprint and capacity even further, leading public-private platforms in this space, and engaging in strategic partnerships with key players across the circular electronics value chain. This will enable us to recycle more complex materials responsibly, safely and sustainably.