Part of Back to the Future, from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Right now, the last stop in the US for many of the giant lithium batteries that power electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles is a plant in a town near Phoenix, Arizona.
There, the Toronto-based company Li-Cycle breaks the batteries down into “black mass” — a dark, shredded mess of copper, cobalt, nickel, and lithium that without further processing is as useful as shiny dirt. That is, until most of it is shipped to factories in other countries to separate it into the valuable raw materials that both auto and electronics manufacturers need to build new batteries.
Soon all this will change as a new industry rises to meet the growing demand for EVs by recycling their parts in the US. Li-Cycle is one of the handful of companies in this space chasing new federal incentives for recycling. And once the company opens a new factory in Rochester, New York, next year, they’ll be capable of processing their black mass back into the raw materials automakers covet.
Recycling is often an overlooked but critical piece of a clean energy future. To address climate change, we’ll need to replace the fuels that run our homes, buildings, and vehicles with electricity powered by clean energy. Nowhere is this more important than in transportation, the US’s most polluting sector. The challenge is that each vehicle needs its own battery, complete with copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese, graphite, and lithium. And because supplies of these materials are limited, it’s not at all clear how auto manufacturers will get their hands on enough for their batteries.
Part of the answer will depend on how countries handle their old EV batteries. By the end of the decade, close to 26 million electric vehicles are expected to be on the road domestically. After 2030, the Biden administration aims for half of all new car sales to be electric.
That’s why the next few years represent a key window to advance a domestic industry in the US that’s capable of breaking down and reconstructing these batteries, just as the global race for lithium-ion battery materials really heats up. For most of the needed minerals, the US doesn’t have the mining capacity or known mineral deposits that other countries have, but what it can do is create a homegrown recycling industry.
Investing in recycling solves several problems at once: It would mean less extractive mining, and potentially help lower the price of the raw materials of the battery. It would turn another harmful waste stream into a renewable source of sorely needed materials for a clean energy transition. And it’s a chance to make a truly sustainable car.
The clean energy future demands better battery recycling
The biggest problem facing batteries now isn’t an engineering problem: they’re more powerful and safer than ever. The real challenge is how and where to get their raw materials. According to the International Energy Agency, meeting the world’s Paris agreement climate goals will take a 40 percent increase in the supply of copper and rare earth elements, up to a 70 percent increase of nickel and cobalt, and an almost 90 percent increase of lithium by 2030.
But the materials are mined in just a few countries, putting them at high risk of supply-chain chaos. In the past five years, the US Department of Interior has classified many of these as “critical minerals,” meaning they are both of economic importance and at a high risk of supply disruption. Lithium and cobalt are at the highest risk, since they are so heavily concentrated in a few countries. The majority of cobalt, currently the most expensive part of lithium-ion batteries, is produced in the Democratic Republic of Congo. China controls two-thirds of the world’s supply of graphite, and dominates the global lithium refining market.
“We don’t want to rely on other countries for our energy needs,” said Jeff Spangenberger, a materials recycling leader at the Argonne National Laboratory and director of ReCell Center, an industry and government collaboration. “Unfortunately, we weren’t given by whoever made this Earth a lot of the materials that go into our batteries.”
Nevertheless, the Biden administration is still trying to chase what’s in the ground. Several initiatives, now set in motion by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will expand the lithium mining industry in the US. Two of those potential sites are in places like Nevada’s Thacker Pass, an open pit mine, and California’s Salton Sea basin, where there are large underwater deposits. Despite the rush of speculation in domestic lithium mining, any serious industry in the US is years, if not decades, from becoming reality. To date, there’s only one operational lithium mine in the US.
The other place to look for lithium, cobalt, and nickel, though, isn’t in fresh mines, but in the batteries that already exist. And the good news is the US will soon have recycling plants capable of extracting materials from used lithium-ion batteries. At least five major startups are focused on this effort, including Li-Cycle, Redwood Materials, and Ascend Elements. Federal funding is helping kickstart the industry, too, including $335 million that’s earmarked for encouraging battery recycling programs in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
The promise of recycling means that the US won’t be so reliant on imports from politically unstable regions or rival countries. What recycling would do, Spangenberger said, is cut dependence on foreign markets so manufacturers only have to rely on them once, for the original mined materials.
Battery recycling will succeed or fail based on the costs and who’s willing to pay
America’s auto industry is on a quest to make lithium-ion battery recycling something that’s both efficient and cost-effective.
So far, the US has a poor track record of recycling the lithium-ion batteries in consumer electronics. Some estimates show as little as 5 percent of those batteries end up recycled, most ending up in the trash, stored indefinitely, or exported as waste instead.
Recycling these batteries is still a complex, costly process: the collection and transportation of spent batteries make up nearly half of the cost of recycling — which is an obstacle UC Davis professor Alissa Kendall, who sat on California’s advisory council on EV battery recycling, expects to become more challenging around 2025, when tens of thousands of EV batteries will start to reach the end of their lifespan.
That means the true test of whether recycling will be profitable and efficient enough to divert batteries from the trash is still a few years off. Until then, facilities like Li-Cycle’s are mostly taking manufacturing scrap. This scrap is usually excess or defective material created during battery construction. Transporting the scrap is simpler and more centralized than what it will look like when car batteries start to pour in from all over the country over the next decade.
Another challenge is the way lithium-ion batteries are classified in most states: They are usually considered hazardous waste because they present a fire risk when improperly dismantled, meaning there are more strenuous packaging and capacity standards for shipping them across the country. With few plants open in the US, the Department of Energy estimates a lithium-ion battery has to travel some 50 miles for dismantling, and then another 1,000 miles to a factory for processing.
Calculating the exact toll of all these added costs is a complicated affair. The DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory developed an economic model that clearly shows US recycling is far more expensive per hour than in China — $50 in the US, compared to $7.50 in China.
Those higher recycling costs explain why mining was the cheaper way for auto manufacturers to procure the materials they needed — until rising demand and pandemic disruptions over the past few years raised the cost of mining.
It’s also worth noting that recycling materials uses less energy and water and generates less pollution than mining. But it’s not a given that the economics of recycling batteries work out.
One model for success could be the traditional lead-acid battery that combustion-engine cars use. These batteries pose their own damaging environmental and public health threats, but are also the best-recycled product in the US — with reuse rates near 100 percent. Part of the reason for the efficiency is there are federal and state requirements on how to dispose of a lead-acid battery. Another reason is that consumers already pay for the costs of recycling; it’s just built into the price of buying the battery (these costs vary by state, but since lead-acid battery technology has been around for nearly a century, the added cost runs just a few dollars per sale).
“We’re accustomed to our vehicles being worth enough that some automotive recycler will take it off our hands,” said Kendall. Lithium-ion batteries aren’t as highly sought after — yet. “There are many conditions where if you don’t intervene with policy, the pure market economics aren’t there. The answer isn’t that we shouldn’t recycle, but that we need policy support to make sure that it’s happening.”
What happens if we don’t get this waste stream figured out? We’ve seen what happens in other industries, like when the US has tried to recycle products like plastic bags or phones. Consumer electronics have abysmal rates of recycling, and new plastic is so cheap that there is no real demand for recycled plastic bags. If EV battery recycling efforts don’t institute a better model, they may not work out.
“If we want to see [recycling] happen, then we need to expect to pay for it,” Kendall said.
There are multiple second lives for the EV battery
Let’s assume the economics do work out in favor of collecting spent batteries and repurposing them in some way. That could take a few forms.
One is to simply reuse old batteries for another purpose without fully dismantling them. Even at the end of an EV battery’s useful life cycle, it still retains a lot of its juice. Automakers consider battery health under 70 percent capacity not up to standards for powering a vehicle (and eligible for return under warranty), but a battery with 70 percent capacity can still work well to store solar power for an electric grid. There are already some pilot programs to repurpose these batteries for stationary sources in other countries, like Nissan’s partnership with a Japanese utility and Renault’s partnership with European energy companies.
However, the vast majority of lithium-ion batteries are still shipped off to facilities that shred them into black mass. What happens to that black mass is where it gets more confusing.
Most of the US recycling facilities in existence today just generate the black mass to ship to other countries, where the full recycling is finished using one of two techniques.
Pyrometallurgy, which uses heat to break down the material but loses a lot of the lithium in the process, was the typical approach until recently. It was cheaper to get new lithium from mines than to work on recovering it in recycling.
But as lithium prices have risen, newer companies in this space are all focused on hydrometallurgy. This process uses chemical reactions to separate and purify the black mass and retains more of these materials. Hydrometallurgy is considered less environmentally destructive and energy-intensive, because it burns less material and uses less energy.
Bringing down the cost of recycling, and truly keeping these materials within the US, entails scaling up the capacity of domestic facilities that can process the black mass. The US Geological Survey’s report on recycling capacities in North America and Europe shows how this industry has been growing. Before 2015, there was just one Canadian recycling facility for lithium-ion batteries, which in 2015 expanded to Ohio. Now there are 25 in North America and Europe operating or in the works to open.
Redwoods Material, associated with Tesla, claims to be the first company to fully remake the battery by processing the black mass, and then reconstructing new batteries. Battery Resourcers of Worcester, Massachusetts, built the largest plant yet in the US, capable of recycling 30,000 metric tons of lithium-ion batteries a year. Li-Cycle will outpace it in 2023 in Rochester, New York, when it opens its first plant to use hydrometallurgy, which it claims will be able to process three times that amount — or enough for 225,000 electric vehicles.
There will be even more facilities within the US, all using the hydrometallurgy approach to recover as much lithium as possible, now that there are federal incentives on the table, too.
In other words, the industry is poised for a lot of growth. It’s a chance to not just think about how to get a lithium-ion recycling industry up and running, but to ensure it works well.
Yan Wang, a recycling expert at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who advises Battery Resourcers, suggested that thinking about recycling from the start of an EV’s life would make recycling easier. Better labeling and more standardization of the exact materials of the battery, which all have different chemistries, would help. “People are developing all kinds of batteries for safety and energy density; the inputs are getting more and more complex,” he said. “It also makes recycling harder.”
Another technique for recycling may be just around the corner. It is called direct cathode recycling, an approach under development at the ReCell program, a partnership between industry and the Department of Energy to advance battery recycling technology. Instead of turning the cathode into a kind of soup of elements like hydrometallurgy or pyrometallurgy does, direct recycling keeps the molecular structure intact so the cathode doesn’t have to be completely reformulated again.
Spangenberger, head of the ReCell program, said direct recycling may not work in every case for every car, but he hopes it becomes successful enough to work at a larger scale. He explained the goal isn’t to make a cathode as good as new, like hydrometallurgy might, but to get it close enough so there’s virtually no difference in performance. It could be the most efficient process, and one way of moving batteries out of the “hazardous waste” category.
The biggest revolution in EV recycling, though, will be when everyone, from the consumer to the auto manufacturer and regulators, begins to consider the end of life of these batteries from their very formulation.
There’s still a chance to get this right and get the necessary infrastructure and policies in place, added Kendall.
“In the coming 10 years or so we’re going to see a huge number of batteries coming out of vehicles,” she said. “We haven’t missed our window.”