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“A METAL ATOM IS a metal atom,” says Alan Nelson, senior vice president for battery materials at Redwood Materials, a company that has specialized in recycling. “That element doesn’t know if it was previously in a battery or if it was in a mine.”
This cogent observation is cited by Gregory Barber in “Recycled Battery Materials Can Work As Well As New Ones,” Wired magazine, October 13, 2022.
This finding is promising news, what with battery recycling being a particularly crucial matter, along with environmental concerns of battery disposal: They’re most definitely not landfill. As an example noted by calrecycle.ca.gov, “This includes AAA, AA, C, D, button cell, 9-volt, and all other batteries, both rechargeable and single-use. All batteries must be recycled or taken to a household hazardous waste disposal facility, a universal waste handler (e.g., storage facility or broker), or an authorized recycling facility.”
No Longer Just Recycling. Originally a recycler selling its output to other suppliers, Redwood Materials now plans to produce its own cathode materials. It has selected a site outside Reno, Nevada, where it will be investing $3.5 billion over 10 years on a new plant.
Barber notes, “The company says it plans to produce enough cathode material (as well as copper anode foil) for 100 GWh worth of battery cells by 2025—roughly equivalent to what CATL, the dominant battery maker in China, produced last year.”
A New Direction. “That’s something of a departure for the US battery industry,” Barber observes. “Despite a flurry of manufacturing announcements, bolstered in part by infrastructure spending and the climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, most have been focused on the steps closest to automakers and consumers, like assembling battery cells and packs. The US has meanwhile struggled to build up industries that lie deeper in the supply chain—from the mining that digs up key minerals such as lithium and cobalt to the extensive processing that turns them into components like the cathode.”
Recycled vs. Virgin Materials. Barber says, “Redwood is among the companies trying to pull the US manufacturing loop a little tighter. The tests, which were performed by independent researchers at Argonne National Lab, are an early step in a qualification process to reassure battery makers of the quality of these hand-me-down materials. The process begins by taking the battery apart and breaking its components down with heat and acids into metal sulfate compounds, composed of elements like cobalt, manganese, and nickel.”
“Once those metals have been separated,” Barber continues, “the next step is putting them together again. The design tested by the Argonne researchers is what’s known as NMC-811: 80 percent nickel, 10 percent manganese, and 10 percent cobalt. These nickel-rich cathodes have been prioritized by automakers like Tesla because they rely less on cobalt while retaining the driving range EV owners have come to expect from their new cars.”
Methodology. Barber says, “The researchers took two sets of precursor materials—recycled metal sulfates provided by Redwood and sulfates made with raw material—and ran them through a series of steps that intimately mix the elements together and then layer in rows of lithium. The result is a cathode material that could be stuck into battery cells and run through a set of standard tests.”
Results. Barber reports, “The researchers found the two types of cathodes—recycled and virgin—to be nearly identical by these measures. (In some cases the recycled versions tested better, though the team cautioned that this couldn’t be tracked back to recycling.)”
“Honestly, it’s a pretty boring result,” says Jason Croy, a battery scientist at Argonne National Laboratory who led the research. That is, an atom is an atom, and it doesn’t care what it’s done before.
Researchers tell Barber, “While an atom is an atom, there was no guarantee that recycling would produce a totally pure metal product, instead of one with irregularities or extra gunk that would mess up the final cathode design. Next, Redwood is working to scale up production and have its material tested by battery and EV makers.”
It’s certainly a promising start, with the atom’s nonchalance being in its favor. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022