3.04 No more critical metals 

Francesco Vizza
Maggio 2023
Aprile 2025
Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche
  • Università degli Studi di Firenze
  • Università degli studi di Napoli Federico II
  • Università degli Studi di Padova
  • Università degli Studi di Palermo
3.04 No more critical metals 

This project relates to Tasks 3.2.3 “Urban mining: chemical recycling of critical metals for fashion and high-tech” of the Made in Italy Circolare e Sostenibile (MICS) Extended Partnership project.
Key elements of the project
The supply risk and the economic importance of some metals are two of the main limiting factors for the development of strategic technologies for various sectors of Made-in-Italy, including electric mobility, energy production and storage, metallurgy, jewellery and electronics. Their recovery and recycling can mitigate the problem by providing a sustainable source of raw materials.
This project focuses on the recovery of precious, noble, rare elements and critical metals from end-of-life devices and industrial scraps, including waste of electric and electronic equipment (WEEE), batteries, magnets, metallurgical and mechanical residues. Management of spent lithium batteries (LiBs) and permanent magnets (PMs) will follow the green chemistry and circular economy principles, then promoting reuse and recycling. The project addresses both the EU Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials and the current lack of cost- and environmentally-effective technologies.
Expected outcomes
This project aims to study and develop new hydro- and solvometallurgical processes for the treatment of LiBs and PMs containing devices as secondary raw sources of critical and valuable materials, such as Li, Co, Ni, Cu and rare earth elements (Nd, Sm). Development of process for a better exploitation of (noble) metals into high-tech materials will also within the scope of the project.
Work Plan
The project will be broken down into the following complementary activities, covering the main areas for recovering, recycling and savings critical metals, each with identified leading Partner:

  1. Lithium Batteries and Permanent Magnets as driving forces of Urban Mining (leader CNR)
    The activity aims to develop sustainable processes for recovering metals from WEEE, and will be implemented along the following steps: 1) Sustainable hydrometallurgical methods for leaching of valuable materials from LiBs and PMs using aqueous solution of renewable organic acids coupled with microwaves and ultrasound treatments; 2) Advanced separation and refining processes using solvometallurgical (e.g. by ionic liquids, deep eutectic solvents, ion imprinted polymers) and electrochemical (electrodeposition, ions intercalation) methods; 3) Lab-scale proof-of-concepts; 4) LCA.
  2. Savings of precious metals through PVD techniques (leader UniFi)
    The fashion sector requires metal accessories and parts with high resistance to corrosion which is usually achieved by layering with precious metal alloys. The increasing difficulty of finding them makes requires innovative techniques and to reduce their load. The PVD technique allows the deposition of more abundant metals such as nitrides or carbides while maintaining acceptable corrosion resistance standards. This approach reduces also the environmental impact and increasing the sustainability of the entire process, compared to the standard electrochemical processes.
  3. New green methodologies for the recovery of precious metals (leader UniPd)
    The activity focuses on the development of new green processes based on inexpensive cellulose derivatives for the separation and recovery of precious metals (Au, Ag, Pt, Pd, Rh) from industrial wastes.
  4. The research will involve 1) the preparation and screening of different cellulose derivatives for the formation of selective complexes with metals, supported also by molecular dynamics simulations; design and development of porous membranes and columns based on optimized cellulose derivatives; 3) characterization of the porous materials and metal adducts; 4) testing of the porous materials for metal recovery and separation.
  5. A dissemination action will be performed to improve societal awareness about the scarcity of raw materials and the importance of urban mining, as a circular economy model to assist in energy transition.

The main results expected will fall in TRL 1-4. These will include:
– Lab-scale proof-of-concept process for the recovery of valuable and critical metals from EoL LiBs, such as Li, Co, Ni and Cu.
– Lab-scale proof-of-concept process for the recovery of valuable and critical metals from EoL PMs containing devices, such as Nd, Sm, Co and industrial waste (Au, Ag, Pt, Pd, Rh).
– Life Cycle Assessment of the proposed processes comparing the state-of-the-art technologies.
– Guidance for the development of technologies towards more sustainable and circular processes about the manufacturing of LIBs and PMs.
Furthermore, new fundamental knowledge will be generated, which will be useful in other fields such as wastewater remediation, raw materials refining, and recovery of noble metals from jewellery manufacturing, use of materials alternative to noble metal in the process of production of jewellery.
The expected results will be attractive towards national and European consortia and companies working in many fields, from waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) treatment to automotive, portable electronics, household appliances, electric engines and jewellery.
Project progress will be regularly monitored by reporting measurable indicators every eight months.