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Mass. companies lead the way on US lithium battery production

On the last Tuesday of September in 2021, Mary Cronin had an important mission. She attended a small campaign fund-raising event in Washington, D.C., for Senator Joe Manchin. The West Virginia Democrat had been at the White House earlier in the day to discuss the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act with President Biden, and Cronin hoped to bend his ear about how the $1.2 trillion spending package would help her employer, 6K Inc. of North Andover.

Cronin, vice president of government affairs at 6K, was working to build support for the same bill Manchin had been discussing with Biden earlier in the day — it allocated about $7.5 billion to boost battery production in the US, possibly including 6K.

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Going into the dinner, Cronin says, she was pretty sure Manchin “had no idea who we were or what we do,” or “that there is no battery material made on US soil.” Cronin thought Manchin was supportive — though he did not exactly say, “I want to go all in on electric vehicles,” in Cronin’s recollection. Manchin voted for the bill in November, and it passed. But a $12,500 tax credit for purchasing an electric vehicle was one reason he cited for not supporting Biden’s subsequent Build Back Better bill last month. (Part of that credit was tied to buying cars with a US-made battery.)

6K is one of a handful of companies, including Ascend Elements of Westborough and Nth Cycle of Beverly, highlighting the fact that while many big battery producers are planning to build assembly plants in the US — including Samsung, SK Innovation, and LG — they will be reliant on materials and components that are made largely in China, Japan, and South Korea.

That, says 6K CEO Aaron Bent, is a problem. “As we transition from fossil fuels, we become almost wholly dependent on China” for battery materials. “If the US doesn’t take action now, we’re going to have [China become] the next OPEC for the next 40 years.” Bent cites data from BloombergNEF, a research firm, that says that 85 percent of a key battery component called the cathode today comes from China. (The lithium ion battery used in cars and consumer electronics produces electricity by using a cathode and an anode to pass lithium ions back and forth.) “We’re looking to leapfrog China, repatriate the industry, re-shore this, and build a new technology workforce,” he says.

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6K UniMelt® plasma processing material at 6,000 degrees Kelvin. Aaron Bent

Bent says that the US produces so little cathode material that when 6K cuts the ribbon on a small-scale pilot production facility in North Andover this April, “we will have more battery materials production on US soil than anybody else.” The company has raised more than $120 million in funding, and has about 130 employees.

The technology 6K uses emerged from research done at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center. Inside a large metal hopper that looks like a jet engine with its inlet facing up, the company uses microwave beam emitters to create an intensely hot beam of plasma it calls “the torch.” (The company’s name refers to 6000 degrees Kelvin, the temperature of that plasma environment — about the same as the surface of the sun.) When you inject raw materials at the top, dissolved in water, the plasma beam transforms them into engineered particles of what is called NMC – lithium nickel manganese cobalt dioxide. Those NMC particles drop down through the system, and are later mixed into a slurry that is applied to a thin layer of foil, creating the cathode, explains Bob Galyen, co-chair of the company’s scientific advisory board. 6K calls its process UniMelt, and asserts that it can be cheaper, use less power, and produce less waste than today’s manufacturing processes.

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What’s interesting about the approach is that it can use virgin raw materials or recycled materials as its input. In September, 6K announced a partnership with Indianapolis-based Heritage Battery Recycling, giving 6K access to Heritage’s network of collection points that gather used lithium ion batteries from cars, phones, and laptops.

Another Massachusetts startup, Ascend Elements, is entirely focused on battery recycling. (In January, the company changed its name from Battery Resourcers.) Ascend was founded in 2015, and has raised $90 million. Its three co-founders have ties to Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Ascend plans to open its first large-scale recycling facility this summer outside Atlanta.

“We see gigafactories being established around the world,” says Roger Lin, vice president of global marketing and government relations at Ascend, using a term coined by Tesla CEO Elon Musk for battery factories that can produce many gigawatt-hours of batteries each year. “They will require matching capability from giga recycling facilities,” Lin says. He points out that recycling is not only for batteries that have reached their end-of-life, but also for scrap material produced during the original battery-making process: “Eight to 10 percent of battery output is scrap,” he says. “We’re taking in tons of that material now.”

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Galyen, the technical advisor to 6K, previously worked in China as chief technology officer at CATL, a major battery manufacturer and recycler that has been a supplier to carmakers such as Tesla, BMW, and Volvo. Galyen says there is “a slow awakening” to the geopolitical implications of China’s dominance as a battery supplier. “Think about if we got in some conflict with some adversary that currently supplies us battery,” he says. “It’s very concerning.”

That’s why Ascend and 6K are trying to raise awareness of the issue in Washington and on Beacon Hill. Cronin asserts that battery material manufacturing and recycling can eventually be “bigger than biotech and life sciences” in Massachusetts. But she also notes that states like Tennessee and Illinois are more aggressive in using incentives to court large scale facilities, and have lower energy costs, which will make it likely that 6K decides to locate its large-scale production sites outside of Massachusetts.

And both companies say they will be chasing a piece of that $7.5 billion in new grant funding included in the infrastructure bill last year, money that will start flowing this spring.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him @ScottKirsner.