Lithium-ion batteries are vital to a lower-carbon future. But they come with a downside: It requires a lot of energy to produce them, especially with the mining and refining of the metals.
The worldwide lithium battery market is expected to grow up to tenfold in the next decade, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Energy, and to be integral to everything from electric vehicles to power storage for renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
On the upside, while the cathode materials that store electricity in the battery degrade, the materials that make them up don't. They are infinitely recyclable.
And while several companies are already in the battery-recycling business, one claims it's not just recycling but "upcycling," putting raw materials from discarded lithium-ion batteries directly back into the supply chain.
That company, Massachusetts-based Ascend Elements, has developed a process to capture battery metals and formulate them into new battery materials, rather than just recycle whole components as competitors do. Ascend can then sell those materials directly to manufacturers.
While the process seems simple, it has taken decades to perfect. Ascend shreds spent batteries as well as manufacturing waste, and turns them into a blackish sand, the company says. It then removes all the chunks of plastic, aluminum and copper and leaches out the impurities, leaving behind the valuable nickel, cobalt and lithium that make up a battery's cathode material.
"We're effectively urban mining, bringing that material in and transforming it into very usable material for the battery manufacturers. Therefore, we're offsetting the amount of mining that's needed," said Michael O'Kronley, CEO of Ascend Elements. "We are able to reduce that carbon footprint 90% to 93% by just recycling these batteries and producing new cathode material."
A study in the scientific journal Joule, co-authored by the scientist at Ascend who formulated the recycling technique, found the batteries made from the cathode-recycling method not only performed as well as batteries made from scratch, but also lasted longer and charged faster.
There are other battery recyclers in the market, but they don't break components down to this high-value cathode material.
"That's really the core of our intellectual property. That's what we're commercializing now," said O'Kronley, adding that he expects to double his nearly 100-person workforce this year as the company opens its first commercial-scale facility in Georgia. It has three smaller facilities in Massachusetts and Michigan.
Ascend has raised $95 million so far from investors including Jaguar Land Rover's InMotion Ventures, Hitachi Ventures, Orbia, Doral Energy, as well as At One Ventures, TDK Ventures and Trumpf Ventures. It is currently in a new fundraising round.