This story was originally published by Canary Media and is reproduced with permission.
Getting rid of old batteries can be a hassle. But for recycling startup Ascend Elements, other people’s garbage is basically a gold mine, if not better.
The Massachusetts-based company opened a recycling plant in Covington, Georgia in late March that it says is the largest electric-vehicle battery recycling facility in North America. It can process 30,000 metric tons of input each year, breaking down old batteries and prepping the most valuable materials inside to be processed and turned into new batteries. That capacity equates to breaking down the battery packs from 70,000 electric vehicles annually, said Ascend CEO Mike O’Kronley. For context, Redwood Materials, another battery recycling startup, told us its Nevada facility is already processing 40,000 metric tons of input annually, equivalent to around 100,000 battery packs.
This is an early example of a nationwide movement to cost-effectively recycle and repurpose EV batteries as more and more drivers go electric. In previous decades, companies hadn’t invested much in lithium-ion recycling, but investment soared in the last few years to match the spiking demand for battery materials.
Recycling can deliver new battery materials without the expense and environmental impact of new mining. It is extremely hard to develop new mines in the U.S., but the federal government is lavishing funds on new battery recycling plants. The revamped EV tax credits also call for increasing shares of domestically sourced batteries and battery materials.
Those market and policy shifts made recycling sufficiently desirable that Ascend is paying other companies for their old batteries. At the moment, those deals are mostly with EV or battery makers that have high volumes to get rid of.
“Paying for these spent batteries keeps them from going into the landfill,” O’Kronley told Canary Media. “It’s better to get paid for it rather than throw them away.”
Ascend also accepts used consumer electronics from battery-collection programs, such as Call2Recycle.
That’s not to say there are enough old batteries coming in to fill the factory. Currently, 80 to 90 percent of what’s going into Ascend’s Covington facility is scrap materials from battery factories, including SK Battery America’s plant in Commerce, Georgia.
That relationship influenced Ascend’s choice of location: Covington sits in the emerging “Battery Belt,” a swath of new battery factories and electric-vehicle plants opening up across the Midwest and the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky (look for all the blue icons in this White House map of new industrial investments). Fellow battery-recycling startup Redwood Materials also chose South Carolina for a forthcoming $3.5 billion recycling facility.
“There will need to be a recycling plant within about an hour’s drive of every single one of those [new battery gigafactories],” O’Kronley said. “You don’t want to be [long-distance] shipping these very large, heavy EV batteries that are classified as Class 9 hazardous materials.”
As it stands, the nearby battery factories send their scrap down the road to Ascend for what’s called “pre-processing.” The scrap and used batteries go through mechanical shredding and sieving, which produces “black mass.” Ascend extracts lithium carbonate from the mass; the remaining mass contains materials such as graphite, nickel, cobalt and manganese.
Currently, Ascend sells most of these substances to the market; it also converts some black mass into cathode precursor and cathode active materials at its Massachusetts R&D center. But the company is building a second commercial-scale facility in Hopkinsville, Kentucky that will take the outputs from Covington and convert them into cathode precursor and cathode active material so that they’re ready to go into new battery manufacturing. That $1 billion plant received $480 million in grant funding from the Department of Energy as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s investment in domestic supply for critical materials.
The Covington plant operates similarly to existing battery recycling plants; the Kentucky location will introduce a brand-new technique for efficiently extracting cathode materials from black mass, which Ascend has dubbed “hydro to cathode.”
“Those two facilities represent the investment that we are making in key infrastructure to recover these batteries, retain these critical elements in the United States and return them into the supply,” O’Kronley said.
But that’s just the start, because the surging popularity of EVs will produce far more worn-out batteries than the country’s recyclers can process. Ascend is already out raising money to build more plants, according to O’Kronley.
Other emerging recycling startups are at it too. Redwood Materials, founded by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel, won a $2 billion conditional loan from the DOE for a Nevada plant to make new batteries from recycled materials. Canada-based Li-Cycle received a $375 million conditional DOE loan for its own facility to process lithium carbonate from a network of recycling plants. Canary Media recently profiled Cirba Solutions’ efforts to expand a battery-recycling plant in Ohio.
All of these facilities tie into the Biden administration’s goal to make the U.S. more capable of supplying itself with the batteries that will be pivotal to electrifying transportation and decarbonizing the grid.