In Georgia, not far from a massive electric vehicle battery plant under construction and another multibillion-dollar factory where electric truck startup Rivian will manufacture its vehicles, the largest battery recycling facility in North America will also open later this year. The company behind it, Battery Resourcers, wants to help solve two challenges—how to handle the growing pile of lithium battery waste, and how to supply more sustainable materials as manufacturers race to make enough electric batteries to keep up with demand.
“We don’t mine these materials out of the ground—we effectively are urban mining,” says Michael O’Kronley, CEO and director of Battery Resourcers. “We collect these discarded batteries or end-of-life batteries and bring them in, process them, and return these materials back into the supply chains locally in the U.S. and also in Europe.”
Traditional battery recycling takes several steps. Many recyclers start by smelting the old batteries, burning off plastic and other materials. “The problem with that is, not only is it not environmentally friendly, but you’re getting a relatively low-value metal alloy that needs further refining, and then it needs further purification to go back into a new battery,” O’Kronley explains. Others shred the batteries and then send the result—a powder called black mass—to different refiners for more processing. “There are many steps to the process, and the more steps you have in a process, the more cost is involved,” he says.
Right now, the process is often so expensive that recyclers have to charge for the service. But Battery Resourcers developed a chemical process that makes it possible to go more directly from shredded batteries to the materials used to make cathodes, the most expensive part of a new product. “We’re doing this conversion directly, without a lot of intermediate steps of individually separating metals and then later needing to recombine them in the cathode material,” he says.
The company can afford to pay for old batteries and then sell the materials it produces at a profit. Its new plant in Georgia will shred batteries and then send them to another of its facilities to create cathode material; another factory for that second step will open in Georgia alongside the new plant next year. (Battery Resourcers currently has smaller facilities in Massachusetts and Michigan.)
The mining of key materials used in batteries, including lithium, cobalt, and nickel, is the cause of major issues around the world: Some cobalt, for example, comes from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children as young as 7 work without basic protective equipment and risk fatal accidents and health problems like asthma and hard metal lung disease, a long-term illness. There’s so much demand for batteries now, from the electronics industry to electric vehicles to storage at power plants, that mining can’t simply be eliminated. But recycling can help replace some of the mined materials, and as more old batteries reach the end of life, the need for mining can eventually decrease dramatically.
Most mined battery materials now go to China for refining. Most battery production also happens in Asia. But as new battery factories are built in the U.S. and Europe, domestic supplies of battery materials are beginning to grow. Along with recycling old batteries, battery recyclers can recycle scrap that’s produced at battery factories; in Battery Resourcers’ case, it can happen in a closed loop. “We can reintroduce that back directly into the battery supply chain, so it goes right back into a battery manufacturer that can build it into a new lithium-ion battery,” O’Kronley says.
Several other companies are also developing new battery recycling technology—including former Tesla engineers—and additional giant battery recycling plants will follow, both from Battery Resourcers and others. As O’Kronley puts it, “It’s really the start of a new industry.”