A Fresh Approach to Recycling EV Batteries [Q&A]

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Representing what is perhaps the most significant paradigm shift in decades, the global push to replace gas-powered vehicles with electric models has hit a critical roadblock. Even as sales rise, automakers rush to launch new EVs, and regulations are enacted to address purchasing and supply chain dynamics, one crucial element about this shift still needs to be addressed.

The heart of the matter is the EV battery. While it serves as the power source for these emissions-reducing vehicles of tomorrow, it also represents a unique environmental challenge. Due to their size and expense, when EVs are in a crash or the battery eventually needs replacing, solutions for recycling these power supplies are still being developed.

While there are several solutions in development, we recently sat down with Steve Cotton, the president and CEO of Nevada-based Aqua Metals, to discuss EV battery recycling. The company recently opened a pilot plant with the goal of becoming the first North American plant to recover battery-grade lithium hydroxide from spent lithium-ion batteries in commercial quantities.

Jeff Reinke (JR): What are the challenges of recycling Li-ion batteries in EVs?

Steve Cotton (SC): The main challenge for companies working to recycle the lithium batteries found in electric vehicles (EVs) at scale is a combination of timing and predicting the future.

Electric vehicles are just taking hold globally — only 6% of cars on U.S. roads today are electric. Almost all of these EVs are brand new and many years away from retirement. There will be a dearth of EV batteries to recycle in the near term and then a flood of them in the future, so timing growth could prove challenging for some companies that may scale too quickly and lock in suboptimal strategies.

There could be as much as one million metric tons of EV batteries to recycle in the U.S. between now and 2030, but shortly thereafter, we will need to start recycling more than one million tons annually.

The other challenge — and potential opportunity — related to predicting the future is the rapid advancement of battery technology. While nickel-manganese-cobalt is the most popular chemistry today, lithium-iron phosphate and even lithium-manganese iron phosphate are quickly becoming a go-to choice for EV batteries. Next-generation lithium metal and solid-state batteries are anticipated to follow closely behind, and a host of more exotic battery chemistries are fighting for market share.

Some recycling technologies are less ideal for separating complex mixes of metals (pyrometallurgy struggles with this) or would require proving new chemical pathways for each individual mineral to be recovered (hydrometallurgy). The risk exists in building too much capacity for a suite of metals that may fall out of favor in the battery supply chain and the opportunity to build a more adaptable solution and plan for future supply and demand.

As battery technology continues to progress and new chemistries become dominant, the technology and economics of recycling will also need to adapt. Similar to the above, once the first EV with a new battery chemistry is sold, it will be a decade or more before they show up for recycling en masse. Timing will be everything.

JR: How is your company addressing the need for EV battery recycling solutions?

SC: Aqua Metals’ closed-loop lithium battery recycling system is both modular and adaptable. Instead of relying on high-temperature furnaces or intensive chemical processes, we are pioneering a third pathway - electrometallurgy. We call this process Li AquaRefining™, and it is driven by electroplating technology, which allows us to recover all the valuable metals present in lithium batteries without polluting furnaces or truckloads of chemical waste.

This provides a clear environmental and economic advantage by eliminating the need for fossil fuels and the recurring expense and embedded emissions of various chemical feedstocks. Since the process is driven by electricity, these critical battery metals can be reclaimed at high purity with a fraction of the emissions and waste and returned right back to battery manufacturers as a low-carbon raw resource in a circular supply chain.

Another advantage of our patent-pending approach is the ability to "tune" our electroplating technology to recover just the metals we want. While it is not as simple as a radio dial, electroplating different metals is a well-understood technology that humanity has been doing for centuries. So, as the makeup of batteries continues to evolve, our electrometallurgy technology can be adapted to economically recover varying metals and compositions.

JR: What has prevented other companies from taking this approach?

SC: Many companies are solving the wrong problem — the recycling issue alone. At Aqua Metals, we are focused on mitigating the worst impacts of climate change, and that is what led us to our recycling solution.

Recycling alone is not enough, and we can see this clearly in the lead acid battery (LAB) industry. More than 90% of LAB are recycled and turned back into batteries, but lead battery recycling uses smelting and is often referred to as "the most polluting industry in the world."

We can’t make the same mistake with lithium-ion batteries. The sheer scale of what lies ahead, the ubiquity of lithium batteries in every facet of technology, will dwarf the global LAB industry and has the potential to be a significant source of emissions and pollution. Recycling 100% of lithium batteries is ideal, but the pathway has to be one that is low emissions and has the ability to operate at net zero in the future.

Based on the same EverBatt modeling from Argonne Lab, by eliminating the energy-intensive furnaces and one-time-use chemicals, Li AquaRefining™ at scale could produce less than 100kg of CO2 per ton of material recycled. That’s a sustainable pathway forward.

JR: What are the infrastructure or logistics issues associated with obtaining these batteries in order to recycle them?

SC: The main challenge is they are still all being driven! Oftentimes we correlate our dismal performance with recycling lithium batteries in cell phones and laptops with the coming flood of EV batteries, and there are a couple of key differences.

Only 5%t of lithium batteries are recycled today, but one of the main reasons is their small size and dispersed nature. Cell phone batteries are often integrated into the phone and have to first be separated one by one before they can be processed. Similarly, many people are guilty of having an old laptop or phone sitting in a drawer somewhere, and often there isn’t a centralized collection point to recover these in large volumes.

EV batteries, on the other hand, are both very valuable and have much more centralization. While the tiny battery in your phone may only have $10-$20 of valuable minerals inside, an EV battery pack could be worth tens of thousands of dollars in one convenient package. EV batteries, and also those from stationary energy storage systems, are easier to gather from centralized locations as well, like auto scrap yards or battery distributors and manufacturers.

JR: Do you think the current EV battery technology is the ultimate way forward in powering transportation? 

SC: While lithium-based NMC batteries dominate the market today, battery chemistry is rapidly evolving, and recyclers will have to adapt to these chemical changes. LFP and LFMP batteries are being tested for use in vehicles today, and next-generation lithium metal and solid-state batteries are starting to emerge from laboratories.

Similarly, alternatives to lithium-based batteries (like sodium ion or even flow batteries) are gaining more attention as well and will certainly find their niche within the marketplace. An important factor in developing new battery technologies for widespread adoption needs to be recyclability.

If we can make a usable battery out of a new material, but it cannot be viably recycled, we are creating a massive waste problem. Similarly, manufacturers integrating batteries in vehicle structures or leveraging new form factors could complicate recycling as well.

JR: Should more mines be opened in the U.S. to source EV metals? 

SC: We view recycling as an answer that helps lessen the demand for the mining of critical minerals and helps mitigate the deleterious impacts extraction can have globally. Mining is essential to the clean energy transition, and it is important to note that even the massive scale expected for solar, wind, EV, and batteries is still just a fraction of the annual extraction of fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal.

The U.S. does have sizable deposits of many of the minerals critical to battery and EV manufacturing, and on top of geopolitical benefits, the push to develop these minerals would likely bring much stricter oversight and better working conditions. It's also worth highlighting that the issue is not just mining the raw resource but also processing it into a usable form.

JR: What trends do you think will have the biggest impact on the EV and battery recycling market over the next 12-18 months?

SC: In our opinion, 2023 is the year that recycling must start delivering on its promises if we want to meet U.S. goals for electrification laid out in the Inflation Reduction Act. A lot of capital is being deployed and partnerships formed, but to date, no one is fully recycling lithium batteries and returning the materials back into the U.S. manufacturing supply chain.

Some technologies have yet to demonstrate capability at bench scale but are scaling up rapidly. Aqua Metals, meanwhile, has fully proven our underlying technology at bench scale and have launched a successful pilot plant which is currently recovering metals from lithium battery black mass at a larger scale. We are taking earnings from this pilot facility and applying them to the phased development of a future lithium battery commercial recycling campus that could process 10,000 tons or more of battery materials a year.

We also think, over time, more attention will be paid to the total impact of recycling processes.  In the near future, companies using outdated pyro and unproven hydro recycling technologies could face difficulties operating in a low-emissions economy and won’t have a viable pathway to net-zero operations.

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