Renewable Energy and Electromobility will play important roles in our quest to attain net zero emissions by 2050. However, both technologies require orders of magnitude increase in the usage of rechargeable batteries.

Rajapandian Rajagopal, our next pathbreaker, Head of Sustainability & Circularity at a Belgium based start-up, researches environmentally and economically friendly methods of recycling batteries & battery grade materials.

Rajapandian talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the benefits of Urban Mining which is gaining traction in many countries, because it has tremendous potential for recycling all precious metals discarded in urban areas by mining discarded waste.

For students, your future is going to be driven by a circular economy that places less burden on the finite natural resources that we have !

Rajapandian, can you talk a little bit about your background?

I was born and raised in Thiruppathur, a small town in Sivaganga-Tamil Nadu. I come from a large joint family, so I was always surrounded by children to play and study with, and my grandparents taught me a lot of life lessons and told me a bunch of bedtime stories. To avoid missing out on these benefits, I completed my schooling and college in my homeland.

I am more of an academic person and was a state rank holder in my SSLC and a district rank holder in my HSC. I completed my entire schooling in my mother tongue, which helped me understand the concepts more thoroughly. My extracurricular activities include debates and essay writing; I have competed in several competitions at the district and state levels and won several awards. In terms of sports, I play badminton and street cricket.

Several scholarships were bestowed upon me during my school and college years, including being one of the top 100 state rank holders to receive a laptop from the state government and being one of 1500 students from across the country to receive a summer research fellowship from IISC Bangalore during my third year of bachelor’s studies. Separately, I’d like to thank my parents for standing up for me and allowing me to pursue my career goals. I’ve known since I was a child that I wanted to pursue a unique career path, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I received my B.Tech in Chemical & Electrochemical Engineering from CSIR-Central Electrochemical Research Institute – Karaikudi, a premier research institute of the Government of India dedicated to electrochemical research. The uniqueness of this course is that CSIR-CECRI is one of the universities in Asia that offers a bachelor’s degree program for 40 students per year. As a result, admission to this university is highly competitive, and the career paths of students from this university are vastly different from those of other fields.

Because this is a research institute, the student-to-professor ratio is high. All of our academic staff members were well-known scientists in their respective fields. As a result, our subject doubts were answered in a very perceptive manner, awakening our curiosity and interest in our studies.

Another advantage of studying here is that we can conduct research even while pursuing our bachelor’s degree. As a result, most foreign institutions and research laboratories are eager to welcome us after we complete our degrees. During my third year of study, I also received a Summer Research Fellowship (competitive govt fellowship by IISc Bangalore) to conduct research on Solid Oxide Fuel Cell at Bhabha Atomic Research Institute in Mumbai.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

During my daily commute to college from my hometown, I used to pass through a chemical factory that emitted a strong sulfide gas odor which affected the individuals that pass through the factory and those from the adjacent village. Nearly every week, residents from the surrounding villages would demonstrate in front of the factory, demanding that it be shut down. Because of my background in chemical engineering, I could understand the value of such compounds, and realized that closing down the facility is not the best option. It piqued my curiosity in learning more about pollution control methods and urban mining concepts, which led me to choose and stay in this career field.

I can think of two people who have had a significant impact on my life. First and foremost, Prof. G.Sundararajan, a chemistry professor at Pioneer Kumaraswamy college, and my uncle, who sparked my interest in chemistry and supported me in selecting an appropriate topic of study. Dato Selvakumar, CEO of the SPM group of firms, moulded and shaped me into an eco-industrialist thinker.

Throughout each level of my progress, I’ve been fortunate to have a great mentor who has helped me get one step closer to my objective in this unusual career path. Dr.Sreedhar G – CECRI scientist for feeding my research curiosity and providing mental support; Mr.Manoj – Production Process Director for his role in my transition from a technical to management skilled person; Prof. Prakash – ULB university Belgium for guiding me on electro-metallurgy; and my friends Hariharan, Hanifa, and my wife Priyanka for their consistent support.

At the outset, though there were several factors that influenced my decision to pursue a career in extractive metallurgy and circular economy, my passion for the field was the primary motivator.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My work path has been set since the completion of my education. I decided to pursue this B.Tech course and university, and I began working towards that goal. During my graduate studies, I opted to pursue a career in this subject and industry, and I was offered a position through a campus interview.

Initially, I had the choice of electroplating or metal recycling as a career path, and I chose the former. However, I quickly recognized that electroplating is not a career path that will pique my interest in the long run. So, with the help of my college campus interview choice, I rapidly shifted my career path to metal recycling. To me, picking a career sector is important since I knew that it would consume the majority of my lifetime and energy.

My first job after the graduation was with Bimetal Bearings Ltd, Hosur as an Electroplating engineer. Here my job involved daily electroplating bath analysis, SPC chart control, Plating failure analysis and internal auditing. Sometimes I needed to backup the production floor on a shift basis, if any of the shift managers were unavailable. I felt like, the job is routine and there was not much space to apply my knowledge. 

So, I restarted my career as a research analyst in Shan Poornam Metals Sdn Bhd – Malaysia, where I learned, practiced and applied extractive metallurgical methods for various metal recovery and refining processes for Precious Group Metals (PGM), such as Au, Ag, Pt, Pd, and Rh; base metals, such as Cu, Ni, and Sn; and rare earth elements, such as REEs. It captivated my interest in doing further R&D and creating multiple flowsheets.

Metals recycling has traditionally been done using metallurgical processes such as Hydrometallurgy (processes involving acid and solvents), Pyro-metallurgy (processes involving high temperatures), and disruptive, interdisciplinary processes such as Electro-metallurgy, Membrane technologies to recover precious metals from end-of-life materials such as mobiles, computer PCBs, magnets, batteries, and other industrial wastes.

The following is a brief description of the various metallurgical processes,

Metals from waste are leached and captured in a solution before being recovered through appropriate precipitation steps in a hydro-metallurgical process.

To recover alloy metals, metals from waste are melted at high temperatures based on their melting point in a pyro-metallurgical process.

Pyrometallurgy process on waste PCBs can recover 99.99 percent pure Copper (Cu) cathode and anode slime, but also contains PGM (Precious Group Metals) & other metals in it. For further purification of the Impure alloy produced, one of the processes widely implemented is the electro-metallurgy process.

Ion-exchange process: It is widely used in the metallurgical field to either capture impure metals from solutions in order to obtain a high purity end product or to capture low concentration high value metals from solutions.

As a research analyst, I conducted research and process development at Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) ranging from 2/3 to TRL 5.

Later, I was promoted to the PGM production department as a process engineer, where I was in charge of process scale-up and process P&L for the production. 

During this time, I scaled up various processes from TRL 5 to TRL 8, which was incredibly challenging because it required a multi-disciplinary field of expertise, including equipment design, mass balance and energy balance studies, process P&L validation, recovery optimization, project planning, and commissioning. As a result of my success in this role, I received several accolades and promotions, eventually rising to the position of Technical Manager, where I transitioned to a technical and managerial role.

Given my skills and performance, I was given the opportunity to work with an EU research-based startup and participate in the EU’s transition to Battery 2030+, specifically to contribute to the circularity and sustainability of EU battery materials requirements. I am currently employed as the Head of Sustainability & Circularity – Battery Materials & Chairman of the “Cell Design and Recyclability” expert group at Li-Planet (a network of EU battery pilot lines), where I am working to tackle the end-of-life lithium-ion battery recycling race as well as battery material refining.

How did you get your first break? 

“A good plan is a half-done success” – In the past, I struggled with making decisions because I was juggling multiple opportunities, which always resulted in a shambles.

So I realized and made a clear plan for my next steps, which began with selecting my graduation studies, which helped me in reaching this position.

Two of my first jobs were secured as a result of our college campus interview. For the break of internal career transition, performance evaluation was used.

My LinkedIn connections enabled me to take a recent break to work on the battery transition in the EU. Initially, despite my extensive hands-on experience and skill set in this field, I faced stiff competition from entrant PhD candidates. Personally, I believe in having a skill set rather than having certificates. However, in countries such as the EU and the US, companies consider a bachelor’s degree for a mid-senior level position. As a result, I received a conditional offer from a Belgian company to begin as an expert and demonstrate my abilities in order to be promoted to director. I took that as a challenge and successfully completed a major project for the organization, as mentioned in challenge 3 below, and was recently promoted to pursue a director role.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: I found it very difficult in the early stages of my profession to stay away from my joint family and relocate to a new nation. It took a few months to get back on track and recover from the cultural shock, as it happens for every countryman.

Lesson learned: Be adaptable and easy to socialize with.

Challenge 2: During my tenure in Malaysia, I had to design multiple experiments to solve a challenging but rewarding problem for the company, which gave me the confidence to take on more complex assignments in the future.

Lesson learned: Do the hardest chores that will reward you or teach you a skill for your future.

Challenge 3: I was involved in EU grant projects during my time in Europe, which was new to me. However, I rapidly heard about the essential efforts needed from my coworkers. I subsequently worked with over 30 organizations from throughout the EU to build a consortium and research proposal to address the existing battery recycling problem, and I was able to secure financing for my organization of 2.9 million € in my first attempt with five successful proposals.

Lesson learned: Always be prepared for an unexpected challenge that opens new doors for you.

Where do you work now? What problems do you address?

I am currently employed as the Head of Sustainability & Circularity – Battery Materials in a Belgium based start-up company, Avesta Battery & Energy Engineering.

Here, I solve a problem by devising an environmentally and economically friendly method of recycling batteries. My typical work profile here consists of identifying collaboration opportunities with researchers with the goal of finding a solution to the current bottleneck in the commercialization of battery recycling, exploring advances in technology for next-generation battery recycling, plant design for metallurgical unit operations, as well as people and project management.

A combination of technical and research skills are necessary for this position. These can be obtained by indulging your curiosity. Negotiation, critical thinking, quick decision making, and environmental concerns are some other key essential qualities.

My job is enjoyable because it is not a typical 9 to 5 job. It is my passion. Here, taking care of the environment starts at home and extends to my daily activities.

How does your work benefit society? 

CO2 emission reduction is a hot topic that has received a lot of attention around the world, and my contributions in the field of urban mining provide direct benefits to society by reducing reliance on primary mining. It entails reducing the environmental impact of metal production by using less energy and water, which has a number of advantages.

The mining industry is frequently regarded as unfriendly to the environment. However, innovations such as urban mining have the potential to change this perception. Urban mining is gaining traction in many countries, and it has the potential to compete with conventional mining in the future. ‘Urban mining’ is the process of mining landfills and then recycling all precious metals discarded in urban areas.

As more resources are required to manufacture electronic and battery technology, traditional mine based production is becoming increasingly strained. Mining companies must develop new methods of extracting deeper and more complex natural deposits, and these finite resources will eventually become uneconomic. This means that the process of urban mining will continue to be less expensive than traditional mining because landfill sites are more accessible than many natural deposits and do not have the same inherent transportation costs. Not only are urban resources less expensive, but they are also becoming richer deposits than those found naturally. It is estimated that urban mining deposits contain up to 50 times the amount of minerals found in natural ores.

Overall, urban mining is a promising and expanding concept with the potential to reverse pollution caused by resourceful waste.

My current role places a strong emphasis on Critical Raw Materials (CRMs). In particular, renewable energy production and electromobility play important roles in the quest for net zero emissions by 2050. Both require orders of magnitude increase in the usage of rechargeable batteries, with Li-ion chemistries remaining the mainstay for the foreseeable future. The massive and rapid increase in the use of Lithium-Ion batteries (LiBs) drives up demand for the raw materials required to manufacture them, some of which are classified as CRMs. Cobalt, Nickel, Graphite, and Lithium, in particular, are either expected to become scarce or are sourced from unstable countries. My job is to investigate and improve such processes in order to create a full recycling process chain for spent LiBs, with the primary goal of maximizing the amount of viable SRM (waste material recovery) we can recover from each kg of battery scrap, across different LiB chemistries that are expected to make up a significant portion of the LiB waste stream in the coming decades.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

The feeling of accomplishment after overcoming your most difficult challenge is always close to the heart. Those accomplishments were some of the unique memorable work that I would appreciate, as described in the challenging sections.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Always think about your next step ahead of time. It moves you one step closer to your goal. Don’t wait for the right moment; instead, be open to new challenges and give your all. You will be rewarded not immediately, but definitely. 

Above all, we should leave a greener environment to our next generation. That is not an option; it is an obligation.

Future Plans?

It is currently in the planning stages, and if my career path interests the reader, they can follow me on LinkedIn to learn about my next steps, and if they need any guidance, it will be my pleasure to assist.