Battery recycling is key to a clean future
Battery recycling has become an important issue in the United States, and recent efforts by the federal government, private industry and academia suggest that the country is quickly making batteries more easily recycled, reused and kept out of landfills.
One of the most significant drivers of progress in battery recycling has been federal funding. Recently, the Biden-Harris administration awarded 20 companies $2.8 billion to U.S. manufacturing domestically produced batteries — and recycling is a big part of awarding these funds.
For example, Ascend Elements, which I co-founded, is one of the leaders on lithium-ion battery recycling and cathode material producers, received the largest awards, for a total of $480 million. The Department of Energy recently awarded a $2 billion loan to battery recycler Redwood Materials. Li-Cycle received a $375 million loan from the Department of Energy.
In addition to federal funding, private industry has also made significant investments in battery recycling. Several major automakers have established partnerships with recycling companies to develop and implement recycling programs. For example, Ascend Elements and Honda reached an agreement to collaborate on procurement of recycled lithium-ion battery materials in North America. This partnership aims to establish a closed-loop recycling system for batteries, in which materials from end-of-life batteries are reused in new batteries.
Academia has also played a significant role in improving battery recycling processes. Several universities, like Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and national laboratories have established research programs that are exclusively focused on battery recycling. The ReCell Center (where I am an affiliated researcher) at Argonne National Laboratory, for example, is a collaboration between industry, academia and the government. The center aims to develop new recycling technologies and processes that can be commercialized and implemented on a large scale.
Lithium-ion batteries can be almost totally recycled if advancements in recycling technology and continued government investment — as we’ve seen recently —keep today’s trend going forward. Reusing the metals and other components that comprise a modern-day lithium battery can prevent the need for new mining and materials generation, and it can ultimately make batteries cheaper. In contrast, the current practice of just leaving batteries to rot in landfills can be dangerous: causing fires and releasing toxic fumes and other waste that can poison nearby soil and groundwater. As of 2019, only about 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries were being recycled, according to the Department of Energy.
Recycling facilities are popping up across the U.S. Ascend Elements announced its first commercial-scale electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling facility in Covington, Georgia, which can recycle 30,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries and manufacturing scrap per year. It also began to construct its APEX facility in Southwestern Kentucky to produce sustainable EV battery precursor and cathode active material for 250,000 electric vehicles per year. These facilities are expected to create hundreds of new jobs and significantly increase the United States’ capacity for battery recycling.
While these developments are encouraging, there is still work to be done. Recycling processes could be better standardized, and there needs to be better public awareness about the importance of battery recycling and how it can offset the need for new mineral extraction or battery production. The U.S. is moving in the right direction, though. We should be encouraged by the progress made through targeted federal funding, business investment and academic contributions.
Battery recycling is key to achieving a more sustainable future. The recent efforts across the federal government, private industry and academia have led to significant advances in battery recycling processes and the establishment of new recycling facilities. While there is still much work to be done, the progress made to date is encouraging, and we must continue to prioritize battery recycling to create a more sustainable future. I remain confident that we can achieve a more recycled and cleaner battery future.
Yan Wang, Ph.D., is the William Smith Foundation dean’s professor of Mechanical & Materials Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Wang’s lab focuses on the study of new electrodes and materials for energy storage, including lithium-ion batteries, supercapacitors, flow batteries, battery manufacturing, battery safety and recycle, as well as fundamental electrochemistry. Wang is the co-founder of Ascend Elements and an affiliated researcher of ReCell Center.
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