As millions of electric cars roll off assembly lines, we’ll soon need a way to deal with millions of worn-out electric car batteries.
Westborough-based Ascend Elements says it’s got a solution — literally.
Founded in 2015 by scientists from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Ascend uses a blend of water and acids to extract nearly everything of value from old lithium-ion batteries, in a process that consumes little energy and leaves behind no toxic waste.
It’s not just about keeping old batteries from piling up in landfills. The United States must import most of the lithium and other critical metals needed to make new batteries. With recycling, “we buy it once and then we keep it here,” said Jeff Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center, a battery recycling project run by the US Department of Energy. “You can recover these materials … and actually drive down the cost of new batteries.”
The lead-acid batteries in our gas-powered cars are easily recycled. They’re made mostly of lead, and weigh around 40 pounds. But the typical electric car battery weighs half a ton and is crammed with exotic metals like lithium and cobalt. To ferret them out, typically “you actually burn all the batteries and melt down the metals into a slag,” said Roger Lin, Ascend’s vice president of marketing and government relations. It’s a costly process that destroys much of the battery, while generating toxic vapors and lots of greenhouse gas.
Ascend uses a process pioneered about a decade ago by WPI professors Yan Wang and Eric Gratz. The batteries are shredded, and their packaging material is removed for recycling; so is the liquid electrolyte that enables the flow of electric current. Then the lithium electrodes are ground up and mixed with a blend of water and acid to extract the valuable metals. While other recyclers end up with metal oxides that must undergo further processing, Ascend converts the recycled metals into brand-new cathodes, ready for use in new batteries.
Backed by $90 million from investors like Jaguar Land Rover and Hitachi Ventures, Ascend is building a recycling plant in Covington, Ga. Set to begin operations later this year, it’ll be the largest plant of its kind in North America, the company says.
For now, there’s limited demand for Ascend’s services, given the relatively small number of electric cars on the road. But that’s changing fast. Companies like Tesla, Hyundai, Ford, and LG have committed to building huge battery factories to support the transition to electric vehicles. By 2030, these factories are expected to crank out enough batteries to support 11 million new electric cars per year.
Ascend isn’t the only local company working on battery recycling methods. Nth Cycle in Beverly has raised $12 million to develop a system that uses electric current rather than heat or chemicals to recapture battery metals. The Nth Cycle system, developed by engineers from Harvard and MIT, is also designed to extract rare metals from the waste material left over from mining.
Even mighty Tesla is getting into the act. The company is planning to build facilities that will reuse the materials from its own cars.
With so many competitors, some are bound to fall away. But Lin is confident that Ascend Elements will make the cut.
“We ultimately feel the most efficient method will win,” he said.