Batteries & Recycling: The Next Frontier

There will be no lack of used EV batteries soon. There’s no lack of companies working on how to recycle them today.

The interior of Aqua Metals' Lithium AquaRefining Pilot facility. (Aqua Metals)

Recycling electric vehicle batteries has been a goal of the auto industry for many years, but the infrastructure to make that a widespread reality is still in the early stages. As the amount of used lithium-ion batteries and cells coming from EVs increases, the industry is getting ready to turn them into fresh packs.

Direct recycling processes cells in several steps, all at mild conditions, to recover materials suitable for use in the production of new batteries Cathodes with their crystal structure intact are the main target, but anode carbon and electrolyte salts are also sought. (ReCell)

In the U.S., the federal government’s push to recycle more li-ion batteries isn’t just to reduce environmental impact. Salvaged materials can be used in new batteries, and recycling can help get the overall production cost of EV batteries under the national goal of $60/kWh.

Direct recycling recovers active materials that can go directly back into manufacture of new batteries, avoiding expensive and energy-intensive processing steps. (ReCell)

In February 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO) launched the ReCell Center, bringing together industry, academia, and national laboratories to develop battery recycling technologies for current and future battery chemistries. ReCell is a collaboration of four national laboratories – Argonne, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), Oak Ridge and Idaho National Laboratory – and four partner universities.

A spent pouch cell can be shredded to yield several products. The black mass powder contains anode carbon and the valuable cathode material. (ReCell)

Jeff Spangenberger, ReCell’s materials recycling group leader in the Applied Materials Division, told SAE Media that ReCell focuses not just on the science of recycling batteries, but also on the people working on this technology.

Factorial’s FEST (Factorial Electrolyte System Technology) 100+ Ah quasi-solid-state battery cell. (Factorial)

“Battery recycling is a great way to reduce the material costs,” Spangenberger said. “It’s a lot easier to recover the materials from recycled materials or from the feedstock of batteries than from the ground. To do that, we like to connect people. No one person is going to solve this, and so we try and connect the dots.”

ReCell hosts industry collaboration meetings for those dots, with the next event happening in mid-May.

DIrect recycling at ReCell

ReCell’s research is focused on direct recycling. Unlike existing hydro- or pyro-metallurgical recycling methods that use chemicals or heat to break down a battery into feedstock compounds like metal sulfates, direct recycling recovers or reuses components in the battery without breaking down the chemical structure. ReCell’s website says itdeveloped an analysis model called EverBatt to “compare impacts of virgin batteries to those with recycled content, to compare processes, and to identify sensitivities to various parameters,” and found that direct recycling promises to use less energy and is more sustainable than hydro- or pyro-recycling.

“[Direct recycling is] not really researched, it’s not commercial,” Spangenberger said. “But the analysis says that direct recycling is a huge opportunity to really catapult the industry into a cost-effective, profitable endeavor, and that would be over hydro and pyro.”

Spangenberger said ReCell has around 50 projects it’s working on, with about half of them focused on direct recycling.

“When we started this, there was one company that was working on direct recycling and as we break down the barriers, we want industry to take off,” he said. “Now, there’s about three companies that are working on this up to the pilot scale. That’s showing that we’re getting people interested and funding is flowing into direct recycling.”

ReCell’s other projects focus on advanced resource recovery (finding another home for components, perhaps being upcycled into a new product), design for sustainability (designing batteries so they’re easier to recycle or demanufacture) and modeling and analysis (like EverBatt), which Spangenberger said allows ReCell to focus on projects that make big-picture sense. These four aspects obviously interact with each other. Designing something for sustainability means considering if a chemical added to a battery for better performance could obviate its recycling capability, for example.

“You can’t have [design for sustainability] as the first metric in the design of a product,” Spangenberger said. “If you can’t sell a product, you don’t need to worry about recycling. So, the cost has to be right, performance has to be right. But I think that one of the metrics that has to be included is end-of-life management. And that’s true for any product.”

Hexagon’s digital twins to the rescue

Global digital reality solutions company Hexagon uses digital twins to help companies manufacture their products better. Hexagon’s director of automotive, George Cuff, told SAE Media that digital twin technology can be used with EV batteries to analyze how they function in the real world, like their various thermal characteristics.

“That information can be captured and we can drive that back into product development,” he said. “We’ve got a variety of different tools in the simulation space. As they’re trying to optimize the design, they run through a variety of different scenarios, using that real-world information to help drive that.”

Cuff said digital twins could also be used to better recycle batteries. Hexagon’s software can manage various materials in the digital twin for simulation analysis, for example.

“[That data] can also provide the ability to analyze and say, for this particular battery or this particular vehicle, we have X amount of these raw materials,” he said. “This can be recycled, this percentage is hazardous material waste. I can absolutely see a scenario where governments are going to regulate or require an understanding of the types of materials, what can be recycled in these battery packs, what can’t be, and what would ultimately be hazardous materials. When these batteries and battery packs really come to end of life there, we’re going to need to have a good solid plan to be able to handle them.”

Officially, the EPA recommends that businesses manage used lithium batteries as hazardous waste, which means the batteries need to be sent to a permitted hazardous waste disposal facility or a hazardous waste recycler as their final destination. If these waste batteries are being shipped internationally, they need to comply with RCRA requirements for the export and import of universal waste. Domestically, the Department of Transportation regulations for shipping lithium batteries apply as well to shipping lithium batteries as hazardous waste, even though the EPA says EV batteries that are removed at “a dealership, an auto shop, a scrap yard, or similar type of facility” are not considered household hazardous waste.

Solid-state is easier

ReCell’s Jeffery Spangenberger. (ReCell)
Factorial’s Siyu Huang (Factorial)

Woburn, Massachusetts-based Factorial Energy is developing quasi-solid-state batteries for future EVs, and is already working on how to recycle them at end-of-life. In June 2023, Factorial announced it would work with the South Korean chaebol (conglomerate) Young Poong to build out recycling capabilities.

“There are quite a few recycling companies in the U.S., but most of them have been focused on lithium-ion,” Factorial co-founder and CEO Siyu Huang told SAE Media.”At the time, Young Poong was the only one that we knew was working on lithium metal recycling, and the process is quite different from lithium ion. [This] can help us reduce the cost of the cell in the future because we are a cell maker, and there are always cells coming out of the scrap and there are end-of-life cells and from our customers, so it’s good to have value generated at end of the life.”

Huang said solid-state batteries, if they ever gain widespread acceptance in EVs, will be easier to recycle than today’s li-ion packs.

“Solid state is, by nature, safer for disassembly compared to lithium-ion,” she said. “It has more solid than liquid. Potentially, it also has better regenerative value, too, because recycling lithium metal as the anode is probably going to be more valuable than recycling carbon or silicon in the anode.”

Currently, Factorial needs to ship components to be recycled to Young Poong facilities in South Korea, but is “actively looking for local suppliers that can do recycling in North America,” Huang said. “A lot of them are interested. It’s just a matter of time and commitment to build a technology that’s viable for recycling for lithium metal. Not everyone is as advanced as they are in Korea. But, if there is enough interest and also enough support from the government from various regulatory pathways, I think they’ll definitely bring a good tailwind to such industry investment.”

Watch your waste stream

There’s no lack of federal money headed toward domestic battery production and use. President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), passed in August 2022, included money for 2,300 grid-scale battery plants along with the better-known electric vehicle tax credits worth up to $7,500. But the IRA’s emphasis on domestic production is also reshaping where EV batteries will be made and where the mterials will come from.

Aqua Metals has been running a pilot of its closed-loop metal recycling process for a little over a year. David Regan, vice president of commercial at Aqua Metals, told SAE Media that work is progressing on its Sierra ARC (AquaRefining Campus) processing center in the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center. Aqua Metals said the ARC,“ will be the first sustainable lithium battery recycling center in North America and the first commercial-scale deployment of our Li AquaRefining technology.” Regan said the equipment was being installed this spring, and he expects black mass to be going in over the summer. The ARC should be in full production by the end of the year, he said, and Aqua Metals has a target of processing 3,000 tons of black mass in the first phase, with 10,000 tons as the target for the next phase.

“We don’t see any issues getting feedstock for ourselves at up to 10,000 tons, at all,” he said. “We’re talking to a lot of black mass creators. It’s just really a matter of pricing. We’re also engaged with OEMs and cell manufacturers. Between now and 2030, they’re going to scale to a terawatt of cell manufacturing by 2030. That’s going to produce a significant amount of manufacturing scrap. They don’t want that to go to waste. The OEMs have spent money on that material, and they want to get it back into circulation.”

A rendering of Aqua Metals’ future Sierra ARC campus. The phased development strategy will let Aqua Metals “rapidly expand our commercial lithium battery recycling capacity while maintaining a higher level of flexibility and resilience,” the company said. (Aqua Metals)

In March 2024, Aqua Metals and 6K Energy announced they would jointly develop a sustainable lithium battery circular supply chain in North America. Regan said 6K’s process uses nitrates instead of sulfates as a feedstock. 6K doesn’t produce any sodium sulfate waste stream as part of its process, whereas traditional cathode active material (CAM) manufacturing produces around 26 tons of sodium sulfate for every ton of CAM, Regan said. Traditional hydro-recycling also produces about one-and-a-half to two tonnes of sodium sulfate for every ton of black mass, he said.

“Traditional processes are extremely dirty when it comes to waste streams, and also have a high carbon impact,” Regan said. “We don’t produce any sodium sulfate. Using renewable electricity, we have an extremely low carbon footprint compared to other technologies. If we’re producing two tons of sodium sulfate for every ton of black mass recycled, that has to go into landfill or go into the ocean. When we’re recycling millions of lithium-ion batteries, EV batteries, millions of tons eventually, over the decades, that amount of waste stream is just not viable.