Umicore Finland helps build a European supply chain for electric car batteries
Kokkola is known for its expertise in battery chemistry. So, when the global materials technology and recycling group Umicore wanted to enhance its battery material business to combat climate change, Kokkola was chosen as the place to expand operations. In 2019, Umicore acquired Freeport Cobalt’s cobalt refining and cathode precursor activities in the Kokkola Industrial Park (KIP), and Umicore Finland was born.
In the Kokkola refinery, cobalt is first refined and then further refined into battery materials – or cathode precursors – that are utilised mainly in hybrid and electric cars. Even though a large proportion of European cars are manufactured locally, the battery chemicals and batteries are still delivered mostly from Asia.
“The European automotive industry needs to build a local supply chain for electric car batteries as the green transition is speeding up. Umicore is planning a joint venture with Volkswagen to produce cathode materials in cooperation. In addition, Umicore has made a battery material sales contract with the European battery cell manufacturer Automotive Cells Company, in which companies like Mercedes-Benz and Stellantis have invested”, says Umicore Finland’s Managing Director Heikki Pihlaja.
Before the acquisition in Finland, Umicore already had a cobalt refinery in Belgium. In 2022, the company opened a cathode material plant in Poland while planning the expansion of the Kokkola refinery.
“Umicore Finland’s current environmental permit allows us to produce 16 thousand tonnes of cobalt and 20 thousand tonnes of precursors annually. However, we are applying for a new permit to increase the annual production capacity to 21 thousand tonnes of cobalt and 104 thousand tonnes of precursors. We are also seeking to start producing our own nickel sulphate needed in precursors.”
Increasing the production capacity means investing hundreds of millions of euros in building another facility next to the current refinery. The expansion will also bring hundreds of new jobs to the region. The goal is to complete the expansion by 2025.
After the first expansion project, Umicore Finland is planning to build another plant in the KIP and has already reserved a site for it. This could potentially double the annual precursor production capacity. Similar projects aiming to increase precursor production are being planned at Umicore’s other facilities as well. Umicore Finland has a significant role in ensuring that all the plants have the best precursor technology at hand.
Europe needs a local supply chain for electric car batteries
“Our Kokkola refinery is responsible for the precursor development at Umicore. Our goal is to make the precursors more efficient to increase battery capacity and cost-efficiency”, Pihlaja explains.
To carry out the expansions successfully, Umicore Finland works in close cooperation with the City of Kokkola and local educational institutions. While the city has helped in finding suitable building ground in the KIP area, schools have focused on ensuring the availability of skilled workforce.
“We need workers from engineers and laboratory technicians to process operators. In Kokkola, one can study battery chemistry at bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level as well as receive a vocational qualification in the processing industry with the chemical industry as the field of specialisation.”
With three other local companies, Umicore Finland participates in a new chemical industry apprenticeship model that allows students aged 16–17 to work safely in a factory environment.
“In the summer of 2022, we had the first under 18-year-old students working at our refinery. This gives students the opportunity to get familiar with the working life and helps us meet the growing worker demand”, Pihlaja states.