The battery economy is booming and the recycling industry is ready for a tsunami of battery waste.
Battery Resourcers from Worcester, Massachusetts, last week announced that it will build a plant in Georgia capable of recycling 30,000 tonnes of lithium-ion battery annually. When it opens later this summer, it will be North America’s largest battery recycling plant.
Its reign will be short-lived, however, as Li-Cycle, which is based in Toronto, is currently building a larger battery recycling facility near Rochester, New York. This plant is expected to open in 2023. The company said last month that it is modifying its plans in a way that increases the plant’s size, a response to forecasts of high demand for recycling.
To help understand what’s happening, I reached out to Jeff Spangenberger, a researcher at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and also director of the ReCell Center, a collaboration between the government and industry to improve battery recycling technologies.
“If the process is good enough, there’s no reason why you can’t make battery materials from the battery materials,” he said.
He considers the development and growth of a battery recycle industry one of the most exciting aspects of the transition to renewable energy.
It’s important because the growth of electric vehicles and battery storage systems will eventually lead to millions of tons of batteries that are unusable unless they are recycled. And it’s exciting because researchers and entrepreneurs are coming up with cost-effective ways to reuse most of that waste.
According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence and Li-Cycle, the recycling industry is evolving and growing in preparation for a five-fold increase in lithium-ion battery recycling worldwide by 2030.
Lithium ion batteries are used for electric vehicles, battery storage, and consumer electronics. The batteries contain rare and valuable metals such as nickel and cobalt.
As more companies produce batteries, environmental advocates and governments are becoming more concerned about the environmental impact of battery manufacturing. This includes the mining of metals to make batteries and the pollution that occurs when batteries end up in landfills.
Entrepreneurs and researchers want to recycle to reduce the need to mine and reduce waste when batteries die.
Recycling batteries is not a new concept. Since decades, companies have recycled batteries and other electronic materials. Even with advances in technology, the front end of the process hasn’t changed much, with workers standing over a conveyor belt of old batteries that they feed into a shredding machine.
Many lithium-ion batteries reach their end of life because they have suffered years of discharging and charging. This causes small physical changes to gradually decrease their capacity to hold a charge.
The recycling process often begins by separating out the plastic covering and bits of copper and aluminum foil, leaving a material called “black mass,” a powdery black substance that makes up most of the guts of the battery. The black mass is made up of cobalt, nickel, and lithium, as well as graphite and other substances.
The hard part is what the businesses are trying to do with the technology they have created: processing the black masses to extract valuable materials, and removing impurities so that the materials work like new.
Battery Resourcers, a privately owned company, was founded in 2015. It grew out of a project at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The company also has a small Worcester plant. The company plans to invest $43 million in Georgia and hire 150 workers for the plant. It is expected to open in August.
“This is just the start of a huge recycling infrastructure,” said Roger Lin, vice president of marketing and government relations for Battery Resourcers, in an interview. “We feel we have a very efficient and clean process to make the battery economy truly circular, and that’s why we’re excited with what we’re doing in Georgia and beyond.”
When he speaks of a circular economic, he means a set policy and principles that seek to reduce waste and find ways for resources to be continually reused rather than extracted from the earth.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp hailed the company’s announcement, saying Battery Resourcers was the latest to move to the state “because of our leadership position in the electric vehicle manufacturing space.”
Georgia is rapidly becoming a center for the battery economy. Rivian is an EV truck manufacturer that announced last month it would build a plant east of Atlanta near where the Battery Resourcers facility will be. Rivian declined to comment on whether Battery Resourcers would be working with Rivian.
The recycling industry must convince battery manufacturers that recycled materials are as good as mined materials. Yan Wang, a Worcester Polytechnic professor and co-founder of Battery Resourcers, was part a team that published an analytical paper in the journal. JouleLast year’s results showed that recycled materials outperformed new materials in simulations and physical tests.
Although this paper was only one, its findings were consistent with what recycling companies expect to find as they continue to learn more and improve.
Li-Cycle, which is based outside Toronto, has small plants located in Kingston, Ontario and near Rochester. The company is building a much larger plant near Rochester at an estimated cost of $175 millions. The larger plant will be able to process 35,000 tonnes of black material per year. This is equivalent to roughly 90,000 metric tones of lithium-ion batteries.
The company was founded in 2016 and is currently developing a system that uses small plants to process batteries. These plants then feed into regional hubs such as the one near Rochester. This is part of a long-term plan, through expansion and joint ventures, to have small plants and regional hubs covering the world’s major EV markets, including in China.
Li-Cycle went public in 2012 and is valued at $1.45 billion. According to the company, its process can recover approximately 95 percent of lithium-ion batteries’ materials and produce minimal wastewater.
China leads the world in battery recycling and manufacturing, just as it is in the clean energy economy. The ReCell Center and others are trying to jumpstart a U.S. industry so that batteries from old EVs don’t need to be shipped to China one day for recycling.
China-based CATL, is the largest manufacturer of batteries in the world. Brunp Recycling is a subsidiary of CATL that can recycle 120,000 tons per year.
CATL announced in October that it would spend the equivalent to $5 billion to construct a new recycling plant for Hubei in China.
“We’re behind,” said Spangenberger, about competition with China. “But we’re picking up speed.”
You can also find other stories about the energy transition in this week’s news:
Tesla Reaches Agreement with Proposed Minnesota Nickel Mine For companies making lithium-ion batteries, one of the biggest challenges is securing reliable supplies. As Mike Hughlett reports, Tesla has now reached an agreement to purchase about half the nickel from a Minnesota mine. Star TribuneMinneapolis. Talon Metals is based on the British Virgin Islands. Its partner, Rio Tinto the global mining giant, is building the United States’ only nickel mine. Nickel mining can have serious negative effects on the environment. This mine development project will need to meet environmental regulations while still being financially viable.
Biden Administration Facing Delays in Appliance Efficiency Rules The Biden Administration has been moving slowly to update energy efficiency standards for appliances and light bulbs, following the Trump administration’s intentional failure to move forward on improving the standards. Environmental groups are dissatisfied with the pace of progress. This reflects the complexity of changes to national environment policy, as Anna Phillips reports. The Washington Post. “Each month of delay is having consequences,” said Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project.
Compressed Air Storage Company receives major cash infusionHydrostor, which I wrote about last month is a company that builds energy storage. It uses compressed air to charge a system and then discharge it for up to eight hours. This long-lasting storage is important for grids that increasingly rely on intermittent power sources such as solar and wind. As Julian Spector reports, Hydrostor has been awarded a $250m investment from Goldman Sachs’ private capital division. This is a significant vote to believe in compressed air storage. “We were able to show them how compelling the technology is and how advanced our development projects are,” said Hydrostor CEO Curtis VanWalleghem, about Goldman Sachs’ investment.
Arizona Regulators Approve Plan for Accelerating EV AdoptionThis week, the Arizona Corporation Commission approved a transportation electrification program for the state. It requires utilities to submit reports on how they are helping customers switch to electric cars and encourages utilities to do more to speed up this transition. Arizona has been slow to invest in electric vehicles, so environmentalists are optimistic about the new plan. Robert Walton reports for Utility Dive.
The United States is at Risk of Being Left Behind in Electrifying Heavy TrucksAccording to an opinion article in the Washington Post, the United States wasn’t among the 15 nations that agreed last fall to work together on a transition from emissions-free heavy trucks to buses. The New York TimesDrew Kodjak and Margo Oge of the International Council on Clean Transportation. “Beyond their impact on the climate, emissions from those vehicles have pernicious effects on human health,” they write, noting that tractor-trailers, delivery vans and heavier-duty pickup trucks are only 10 percent of the vehicles on the road but are responsible for 45 percent of the sector’s nitrogen oxide emissions.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Inside Climate News