Trashed no more: How a Rochester site will recycle our EV batteries for a U.S. green surge

Li-Cycle aims to be first North American producer of ready-to-go, recycled battery grade lithium

230 million electric vehicles could be on the road by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. As automakers ramp up production and governments dodge fuel-powered cars to hit climate targets, a new environmental question arises: What will be done with all those batteries once they lose a critical level of capacity or performance?

Batteries in electric vehicles are made of key amounts of nickel, cobalt and lithium. Mining these materials creates waste and can lead to soil degradation, water shortages and damage to ecosystem functions.

Trashing them improperly in a landfill can be dangerous and create environmental problems.

A primary solution to the soon-to-be-too-old battery problem has the government and venture capitalists racing to support companies investing in recycling EV battery materials. The idea is to reduce dependence on mining and keep battery materials in circulation.

That’s where private innovation and public support steps in, like the newly announced investment in a new processing center in Rochester, New York.

What will they pioneer at Rochester’s recycling center?

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer this week announced a $375 million U.S. Department of Energy loan for Li-Cycle, a Toronto-based lithium-ion battery recycler. The money will super-charge the firm’s race to efficiently recycle batteries thoroughly enough to provide the key materials right back to manufacturers looking for supplies.

The loan, via the Inflation Reduction Act, potentially will make Li-Cycle the first source of recycled battery-grade lithium in North America.

Li-Cycle President and CEO Ajay Kochhar said Eastman Business Park is the right location for the company’s Hub because Rochester already has a qualified workforce for chemical processing. The expansion of Li-Cycle’s Rochester lithium-ion battery resource recovery facility is expected to create 1,000 new construction jobs and 270 permanent jobs for the city.

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‘The Li-Cycle operation being planned for Rochester’s Eastman Business Park is a hub that takes in materials from other “spokes” in Ontario, Arizona and Alabama. They source materials from manufacturing scrap, consumer batteries, and EV batteries. Li-Cycle’s battery feedstock in 2022:

41% – original equipment manufacturer materials, including recalls (EVs)
25% – energy storage systems
20% – manufacturing scrap
14% – consumer electronics

The batteries are, without being dismantled, shredded in a hydrometallurgical extraction process into intermediate products (plastics, copper/aluminum, and black mass). Li-Cycle has engineered a process that avoids the fluorine emissions produced if battery materials were instead recycled by burning.

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Are there options other than shredding a battery for its main elements?

Zhimin Xi, an associate professor at Rutgers University department of industrial and systems engineering, does research that includes ways to find a second life for lithium-ion batteries through re-purposing them in other applications. “Recycling is a big issue,” Xi said in an email. “There are so many electric cars. There has to be a way to re-use the batteries.”

The other day, he bought a lithium battery at Home Depot for a power tool and was surprised that it cost more than he expected. “80 dollars! Could we bring the cost of them down to $10-20? The customer doesn’t always have to know the technological perspective, but they will appreciate it if we can make them cheaper, and (the products) still meet their needs.”

Are there other competitors in this battery sector, racing to decarbonize?

Yes. There is a large recycling investment supported with government loans in Nevada called Redwood. And there are other plans to produce a steady supply of lithium in the United States through new mining. The massive push for EVs — both commuter and personal — will mean a central role for reycling, though.

McKinsey & Company just released a new report on the sector: “Recycling is not only a long-term remedy for the likely future shortage of raw battery materials such as lithium and nickel but also a fundamental lever to decrease battery emissions and reduce the dependency of EU and US markets on carbon-intensive mining regions.”

The report foresees that “large volumes of production scrap will become available, increasing the relevance of a functioning recycling value chain even before larger numbers of EVs reach their end of life in five to ten years.”

What more will be needed to attack the domestic lithium supply issue?

As far as speeding the transition to electric vehicles: recycling can help a bit, but most EV batteries have a useful life of about 15 years, so they won’t be back in the pool of available resources until the middle of this decade. Right now, recyclers like Li-Cycle are going to mostly start with components left over from making the original EV batteries.

Rebecca Ciez, an assistant professor at Purdue focused on mechanical, environmental and ecological engineering, talked about recycling of batteries being a small part of the future market and why.

”The size of the EV market (and thus demand for battery materials) will also need to expand well beyond historic demand, so even if you could recover all of the old battery materials, we’d still need to expand mining capacity to meet the overall vehicle demand,” she said in an email. “The exact difference in demand for materials depends a lot on vehicle sales and attributes like the size of battery packs.”

Li-Cycle is bullish on the market for recycling: “Into the 2030s, Li-Cycle expects end-of-life EV batteries to make up a significant proportion of its battery feedstock supply.”

Forward-looking analysis for lithium-ion competition, market

So it’s likely that America will need a combination of:

  • Efficiency gains in manufacturing lithium-ion batteries
  • Leaps in the cost effectiveness of recycling battery material and used batteries
  • New sources of lithium in the United States, which are already being explored
  • Government support to allow entrepreneurs to make a profit from nascent markets or tech
  • Alternatives like new ways to make sodium-ion batteries, which currently store less energy for the space used (energy density) than lithium-ion batteries but are good for some applications

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