Inside Clean Energy: Here Come the Battery Recyclers

As battery use skyrockets for EVs and energy storage, a recycling industry is taking shape.

A Li-Cycle employee oversees lithium-ion batteries on a conveyor belt at the company’s plant near Rochester, New York. Photo courtesy of Li-Cycle.

A Li-Cycle employee oversees lithium-ion batteries on a conveyor belt at the company’s plant near Rochester, New York. Photo courtesy of Li-Cycle

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The battery economy is booming, and with it a recycling industry is bracing itself for a wave of battery waste.

Battery Resourcers of Worcester, Massachusetts, said last week that it is planning to build a plant in Georgia that will be capable of recycling 30,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries per year. It will be the largest battery recycling plant in North America when it opens later this year.

But its reign will be brief because Li-Cycle, based in the Toronto area, is building an even larger battery recycling plant near Rochester, New York, that is scheduled 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.

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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.

For him, the development of a battery recycling industry is one of the most important and exciting parts of the transition to clean 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.

The recycling industry is changing and growing to prepare for a projected five-fold increase in the amount of lithium-ion batteries available for recycling globally by 2030, according to figures from Li-Cycle and Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

Lithium-ion batteries are used to power electric vehicles, battery storage and consumer electronics. The batteries contain rare and expensive metals like cobalt and nickel.

As companies manufacture more batteries, governments and environmental advocates have growing concerns about environmental damage from across the battery lifecycle, including the mining of metals to manufacture batteries, and the pollution that happens when old batteries end up in landfills.

Recycling Lithium-Ion Batteries

Researchers and entrepreneurs want to use recycling to reduce the need for mining and reduce waste when batteries reach the end of life.

Battery recycling is not new. Companies have processed batteries and other electronic waste for decades. 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.

Lithium-ion batteries often reach the end of their lives because they have degraded following years of charging and discharging, which leads to small physical changes that gradually reduce their capacity for holding a charge, not because metals inside are no longer usable. 

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 contains cobalt, nickel and lithium, along with graphite and other substances.

The hard part, and the essence of the technologies the businesses have developed, is processing the black mass to extract the valuable materials and remove impurities so the materials can function like new.

Battery Resourcers is a privately held company, founded in 2015, that grew from a project at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and has a small plant in Worcester. The company is planning to spend $43 million and hire 150 workers at the Georgia plant, which would 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 talks about a circular economy, he is referring to a set of principles and policies that aim to reduce waste and find ways to continually reuse resources rather than extracting them from the earth.

Georgia Gov. 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.”

Indeed, Georgia is becoming a hub of the battery economy. One high-profile example is Rivian, the EV truck maker, which said last month that it will build a plant near where the Battery Resourcers plant will be located, east of Atlanta. Battery Resourcers has declined to comment on whether it will be working with Rivian.

As the recycling industry grows, it also needs to convince battery manufacturers that recycled materials can meet the same performance standards as mined materials. Yan Wang, a professor at Worcester Polytechnic and a co-founder at Battery Resourcers, was part of a team that published an analysis in the journal Joule last year showing that recycled materials can outperform new materials in physical tests and simulations.

This was just one paper, but its findings were in line with what recycling companies say they expect to see as they continue to learn and improve.

Li-Cycle, based outside of Toronto, has small plants in Kingston, Ontario, and near Rochester, New York, and is building the much larger plant near Rochester with a projected cost of $175 million. The larger plant would be able to process 35,000 metric tons of black mass per year, which the company says is equivalent to about 90,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries.

The company, founded in 2016, is developing a system of small plants that do initial processing of batteries and then feed into regional hubs like the one being built 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 last year and has a market capitalization of $1.45 billion. The company has said its process can recover about 95 percent of the materials in a lithium-ion battery, and do so without producing wastewater and with minimal air emissions.

Like so much in the clean energy economy, China is way ahead of the United States, leading the world in battery manufacturing and recycling. 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 battery manufacturer in the world. It has a subsidiary, Brunp Recycling, with capacity to recycle 120,000 tons of batteries per year.

CATL said in October that it was planning to spend the equivalent of $5 billion to build a new recycling plant in the Chinese province of Hubei.

“We’re behind,” said Spangenberger, about competition with China. “But we’re picking up speed.”


Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:

Tesla Reaches Agreement with Proposed Minnesota Nickel Mine: One of the big challenges for companies that make lithium-ion batteries is securing reliable supplies of rare metals like nickel. Tesla now has an agreement to buy about half of the nickel from a proposed mine in Minnesota, as Mike Hughlett reports for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. Talon Metals, based in the British Virgin Islands, and its partner, the global mining giant Rio Tinto, are building one of the only mines in the United States whose main product is nickel. Nickel mining can have significant negative effects on the environment, so one challenge with the development of this mine is meeting environmental rules while remaining financially viable.

Biden Administration Faces 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 now frustrated with the pace of progress, which shows the complexity of changes to national environmental policy, as Anna Phillips reports for 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 Gets Major Cash Infusion: Hydrostor, a company I wrote about last month, is building energy storage that uses compressed air to charge a system that can then discharge for up to eight hours. This long-duration storage is valuable for a grid that is increasingly relying on intermittent power sources like wind and solar. And now Hydrostor has gotten a $250 million investment from the private equity division of Goldman Sachs, which is a significant vote of confidence in the promise of compressed air storage, as Julian Spector reports for Canary Media. “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 to Accelerate EV Adoption: The Arizona Corporation Commission voted this week to approve a transportation electrification plan for the state, requiring utilities to file reports on what they are doing to help customers switch to electric vehicles and encouraging utilities to do more to accelerate this shift. Arizona has trailed neighboring states in EV investment, so environmental advocates are hopeful about the new plan, as Robert Walton reports for Utility Dive.

U.S. Is in Danger of Falling Behind in Electrifying Heavy Trucks: The United States was not among the 15 nations that agreed to work together last fall to work on a transition to emissions-free heavy trucks and buses, and there is a danger of falling behind, according to an opinion piece in The New York Times by Margo Oge and Drew Kodjak 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 dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org.