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Batteries Made From Recycled Materials “Better Than New”

Battery Materials says its recycled cathodes are better than new.

There is a built-in consumer bias against using recycled materials. We want new, not used. We want a new starter for our car, not one pulled from a wreck at the junkyard.  Manufacturers feel the same way, especially when it comes to making batteries from recycled materials.

As much as JB Straubel tells us that his new company, Redwood Materials, can recover 95% or more of the raw materials used to make lithium-ion batteries, that is only part of the equation. The other part is convincing battery manufacturers to use those recaptured materials to build new batteries. “In general, people’s impression is that recycled material is not as good as virgin material,” Yan Wang, a professor of mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, tells IEEE Spectrum. “Battery companies still hesitate to use recycled material in their batteries.”

Better Than New

A team of researchers headed by Wang, which included people from the US Advanced Battery Consortium and battery company A123 Systems, has demonstrated that battery and carmakers needn’t worry. The results, published in the journal Joule, show that batteries with recycled cathodes can be as good as, or even better, than those using new materials. In the summary to their report, the group says:

“Recycling spent lithium-ion batteries plays a significant role in alleviating the shortage of raw materials and environmental problems. However, recycled materials are deemed inferior to commercial materials, preventing the industry from adopting recycled materials in new batteries. Here, we demonstrate that the recycled (NMC 111) has a superior rate and cycle performance, verified by various industry-level tests. Specifically, 1 Ah cells with the recycled (NMC 111) have the best cycle life result reported for recycled materials and enable 4,200 cycles and 11,600 cycles at 80% and 70% capacity retention, which is 33% and 53% better than the state-of-the-art, commercial (NMC 111)

“Meanwhile, its rate performance is 88.6% better than commercial powders at 5C. From experimental and modeling results, the unique microstructure of recycled materials enables superior electrochemical performance. The recycled material outperforms commercially available equivalent, providing a green and sustainable solution for spent lithium-ion batteries.”

The recycled material showed a more porous microscopic structure that is better for lithium ions to slip in and out of. The result? Batteries with an energy density similar to those made with commercial cathodes but which also showed up to 53% longer cycle life.The cathodes were made using a patented recycling technique that Battery Resourcers, a startup Wang co-founded, is now commercializing.

The Research Is Encouraging

While the recycled batteries weren’t tested in cars, tests were done at industrially relevant scales. The researchers made 11 Ampere-hour industry-standard pouch cells composed of materials at the same density as EV batteries. Engineers at A123 Systems did most of the testing, Wang says, using a protocol devised by the USABC to meet commercial viability goals for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. He says the results prove that recycled cathode materials are a viable alternative to pristine materials.

Most battery recyclers produce separate elements to sell to battery material companies, which will in turn make the high-grade materials for car and battery makers. But the real value of an EV battery is in the cathode, Wang says. Cathode materials are proprietary combinations of metals including nickel, manganese, and cobalt that are crafted into particles with specific sizes and structures.

Battery Resourcers’ recycling technology produces various ready-to-use NMC cathode materials based on what a car company wants. That means selling the recycled materials could turn a profit, something recycling companies say can be hard to do. “We are the only company that gives an output that is a cathode material. Other companies make elements, so their value added is less,” Wang adds.

Field Testing

The company is already selling recycled materials to battery manufacturers on a small scale. It plans to open its first commercial plant, which will be able to process 10,000 tons of batteries, in 2022. In September, it raised $70 million, with which the company plans to launch two more facilities in Europe by the end of 2022. In all, the company expects to have 30,000 tons of recycling capacity by the end of next year from all three commercial scale locations. Cathode material production will be added to those sites in 2023.

On the company’s website, CEO Michael O’Kronley says the company expects Europe to be a larger market than the US. “Europe has the same concerns the U.S. does about retaining critical battery materials in the supply chain.” He adds that European lawmakers currently mandate battery recycling on the part of OEMs and will probably mandate the use of recycled materials in batteries as well. The majority of critical battery materials are currently produced in Asia but O’Kronley says the industry is shifting from being highly concentrated in specific locations to a more global operation.

“Whether it’s the Asian company that is moving to Europe or North America, or new entrants that are coming in and supplying Europe and North America — we’re a new entrant coming in supplying these regions — the battery material supply chain will absolutely have to be localized. We’re part of that.”

O’Kronley says the company has been in talks with a number of OEMs and consumer electronics companies, but declined to provide details. However, he did say that vehicle OEMs and battery manufacturers have already taken the company’s cathode material and built it into batteries for testing and to compare it to “virgin” cathodes.

“It’s Battery Resourcers’ belief that, long term, you need a vertically integrated supply chain and to be able to extract the highest amount of value out of these spent batteries. We’re moving upstream in making these engineering materials that go right back into a new battery.”

Disinformation & New Technology

The world is focused intently on recycling the batteries for electric vehicles in part to counter the misinformation out there that old batteries are just discarded in landfills, a narrative promoted by those who do not want to see the EV revolution succeed. But if a recycler like Battery Resourcers can actually supply recaptured materials that are better than new, that argument pretty much goes away.

Sharp-eyed readers will point out that many companies are moving away from NMC 111 technology and toward LFP chemistries. That is so, and no doubt Battery Resourcers is already planning ways to recycle those batteries as well.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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