Bolstered by federal funds, Cirba Solutions is growing fast to meet rising demand for recycled metals and minerals. Canary Media gets a firsthand look.
LANCASTER, Ohio — Two sets of double doors mark the entrance of a long, squat industrial building in Central Ohio. Push them open, and a strange, nearly sweet scent immediately fills the air. Walking inside Cirba Solutions’ sprawling plant, it’s as if someone has just removed the plastic cap of an enormous Sharpie permanent marker.
“It just smells like a lot of batteries to me,” Tom Plute observes, as he slides on a bright yellow hard hat and heads deeper inside the cavernous building.
Plute is the environmental manager at Cirba Solutions’ battery recycling operation in Lancaster, which is located some 30 miles southeast of Ohio’s capital city, Columbus. At a quiet industrial park surrounded by farmland, the company operates two facilities: one for processing lead- and nickel-based batteries, and another for processing lithium-ion batteries. Plute and I are visiting the second building, which right now recycles millions of pounds per year of cells from electric vehicles, hybrid cars, e-bikes and consumer electronics.
Soon, this facility will be able to churn out roughly four times more battery-grade material — potentially enough to power more than 200,000 new EVs annually.
The company, which is headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, is scaling its lithium-ion recycling operations in Ohio and across the country to fulfill the rising U.S. demand for the metals and minerals used to make batteries, including lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese. As more households and businesses adopt electric vehicles and install backup storage systems for buildings, the need for these materials is expected to skyrocket.
Globally, demand for lithium-ion batteries could increase by over 500 percent this decade, from 700 gigawatt-hours in 2022 to around 4,700 gigawatt-hours in 2030, according to a recent analysis by McKinsey & Company.
The Biden administration says it wants to produce more metals and minerals domestically, both to reduce the nation’s reliance on overseas suppliers like China, and to limit the potential for unchecked environmental harm and human-rights violations in mining operations. This week, Wired magazine reported that a surge in nickel mining in Indonesia has led to worker deaths, polluted air and water, and the destruction of forests and fisheries. The country is a critical link in the supply chains of EV manufacturers, including Tesla.
To boost domestic supplies, the U.S. government is pushing to expand mining activity in states like Nevada. It’s also working to ensure that as many materials as possible are extracted from old batteries — a strategy that could prevent millions of tons of hazardous lithium-ion battery waste from piling up in landfills.
In late November, shortly before my visit, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded Cirba Solutions more than $82 million in grants through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to upgrade the lithium-ion recycling plant in Lancaster. The $200 million expansion project is expected to create 150 local jobs and be fully operational in late 2024 or early 2025.
More recently, another major recycling firm, Redwood Materials, secured a $2 billion conditional loan commitment from the DOE’s Loan Programs Office to build a $3.5 billion factory in McCarren, Nevada. The facility will produce two main ingredients of lithium-ion batteries: anode copper foil and cathode active materials. At full capacity, Redwood plans to produce enough materials to supply battery production for more than 1 million EVs per year.
Redwood and Cirba Solutions are among a growing number of companies that are preparing for an influx of spent batteries. That includes a handful of startups that are building dedicated lithium-ion recycling factories at an unprecedented scale, using new methods that could recover potentially more material from batteries, and in a cleaner fashion, than existing techniques, as Canary Media reported in its Recycling Renewables series.
“We are really at the tip of the iceberg for where battery recycling is going to be, because there’s going to be so much more material,” says Jeff Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center, a DOE-funded battery recycling consortium led by Argonne National Laboratory.
“What that means is that we have an opportunity to improve what we’re doing today, and we have an opportunity to grow along with it,” he adds.
The messy business of breaking batteries down into their parts
At the Lancaster facility, Plute takes me onto the vast factory floor where lithium-ion batteries are nearly ground to dust. A worker wearing safety glasses and thick gloves methodically separates the foil-wrapped cells from an EV battery module with a drill, then tosses each silvery pouch into a blue plastic drum.
“They end up looking like really large cellphone batteries,” Plute says of the cells.
Last June, the facility’s previous owner, Retriev Technologies, merged with Heritage Battery Recycling and Battery Solutions to form Cirba Solutions. The combined entity now operates six battery processing locations in North America and plans to more than double that number by 2030. Along with the DOE grant, the company recently secured $245 million from the EQT Infrastructure V Fund and $50 million from the Japanese conglomerate Marubeni.
“Our goal is to expand our lithium-ion processing capabilities by about 600 percent over what we are today, over the course of the next two to three years,” David Klanecky, Cirba Solutions’ president and CEO, told me earlier by phone.
Many of the lithium-ion batteries that the Lancaster facility receives today come directly from battery manufacturers, which generate scrap materials as they develop new chemistries, design vehicles and mass-produce modules. Although the recycling firm doesn’t generally name who it works with, the company does have a public agreement to recycle lithium-ion EV scrap generated at select General Motors facilities through 2024.
Ohio is a major notch in the so-called “Battery Belt” that’s emerging across the Midwest as industrial heavyweights build multibillion-dollar EV battery and car-assembly plants. GM and LG Energy Solutions (formerly LG Chem) opened a 2.8-million-square-foot battery plant last fall in Lordstown, Ohio, which is now making batteries for the GMC Hummer EV. In January, LG and Honda Motor formed a joint venture to produce EV batteries at a $4.4 billion plant near the village of Jeffersonville.
Much of the lithium-ion waste those factories produce will likely wind up in recycling facilities like the one in Lancaster. “There’s a big shift happening overall in the industry [toward recycling],” Danielle Spalding, Cirba Solutions’ vice president of marketing and communications, says from the factory floor.
We follow Plute toward a steep blue conveyor belt, at the bottom of which a second worker loads barrels of lithium-ion cells and post-consumer batteries. At the top sits the hammer mill, which whines and groans as it shreds the batteries into tiny pieces. From there, a labyrinth of pipes and equipment separate, wash and filter the materials, which cascade into bins and are stuffed inside big white plastic sacks.
One set of containers is filled with “fluff” made up of plastic wrappers, labels and other extraneous bits. Spalding points to a cluster of steaming sacks bulging with “black mass” — a cakey, powdery substance that is rich with materials such as aluminum, copper, cobalt and nickel. The bags’ contents are still giving off heat from the chemical reaction created when the batteries were disassembled, she says.
For now, Cirba Solutions sends its black mass off for additional hydrometallurgical processing. However, with the facility’s expansion, Cirba Solutions will be able to do more with the substance in-house.
The recycling firm is partnering with Momentum Technologies to demonstrate a new patented process for recovering nickel, cobalt and manganese from black mass — membrane solvent extraction, in which Momentum separates a mixed-metal solution into pure battery-grade salts. Battery manufacturers can then use the salts directly to produce cathode material. Cirba Solutions is also working with 6K Inc. to produce recycled battery cathodes.
Both innovations are meant to reduce the cost and complexity that encumber the existing methods for lithium-ion battery recycling. They should also boost the value of materials that come directly out of Cirba Solutions’ facilities.
“We’re going to create a closed-loop material processing system in Lancaster, where we can return all those elements back into the domestic supply chain,” Klanecky says.
Scaling up recycling to minimize the impact of mining
If recycling firms can meet their ambitious goals, the industry could significantly reduce the need to scrape, dig and leach raw materials from the ground — not only for making EV batteries but also for producing solar panels, wind turbine components, energy-saving lighting and other clean energy technologies that use many of the same key metals and minerals.
By 2040, effectively recycling end-of-life batteries has the potential to reduce global demand by 55 percent for copper, 35 percent for cobalt and nickel, and 25 percent for lithium, according to a 2021 report prepared for Earthworks by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia.
“We need quite quickly to transition toward renewable energy and avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” says Elsa Dominish, a researcher at the institute who co-authored the report. “But it’s imperative that we think about recycling and reuse when we’re developing these technologies. We want to make sure that we’re doing that in the most sustainable way.”
Better recycling isn’t the only way to reduce demand for key metals, she adds. Shifting consumer preference to shorter-range EVs from hulking electric trucks with massive battery packs would help. So would improving public bus and subway systems and encouraging active transportation, such as walking and cycling, so that people don’t always need a personal EV to get around.
“We don’t want to be replacing every [gas-powered] car with an EV,” she says. “Otherwise, we’re not solving broader problems.”
Right now, recycling technology and processing capacity for lithium-ion batteries still lags far behind the manufacturing of new cells and modules. In the United States, the recycling rate for lithium-ion batteries of all categories is less than 20 percent.
A handful of logistical and technical hurdles contribute to the low rates. For recyclers, finding a steady supply of end-of-life batteries can be tricky and expensive. Many cities and countries lack cohesive systems for collecting, handling and transporting discarded lithium-ion batteries, which can overheat, catch fire and explode if improperly handled. What’s more, battery makers are continuously developing different lithium-ion chemistries and form factors, such as pouches and cylindrical cells, meaning that recyclers have to manage a complex waste stream.
When they do procure batteries, recyclers typically rely on traditional methods using extreme heat or acidic baths, both of which are costly and time-consuming ways of extracting metals, and neither of which fully recaptures the useful material inside the battery.
Still, those dynamics are starting to change in the U.S. and globally as policymakers increasingly require or incentivize higher recycling rates, and as research institutions and companies pursue more promising ways of mining old batteries.
ReCell Center, the Argonne-led recycling consortium, is developing a set of emerging techniques for “direct cathode recycling.” A cathode is the battery’s positive electrode and the most valuable component of a lithium-ion cell. Today’s intensive methods break apart the cathode, separating the nickel, manganese and cobalt stored inside. Direct cathode recycling aims to separate the foil, polymers and other materials that bind the cell together without breaking apart the cathode. This keeps the valuable cathode material intact, resulting in a more profitable outcome.
“The revenue potential is higher [for recyclers] because the cathode is a higher-value material than the raw materials,” Spangenberger says. “The problem is, there’s a lot of challenges associated with direct recycling. ReCell’s goal is to take down some of the barriers and get the industry interested to say, ‘Hey, maybe this can work.’”
Just as recyclers are improving their methods, he adds, battery manufacturers should also design their cells and modules to be more easily recycled, such as by using polymer binders that are easier to break down at the end. “We have time to make improvements, to impact things down the road 10 years from now that will make our lives easier,” he says.
Back in Lancaster, Cirba Solutions says it’s trying to stay flexible with its recycling technology and continue research and development so the facility can receive any number of battery types and chemistries that will appear on the market in exponentially larger quantities in the coming years.
“We get to be a big part of the electrification transformation,” Spalding says. “And that’s exciting for us.”
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