As part of a Leadership Roundtable on battery recycling at The Battery Show 2022, Megan O’Connor, founder and CEO of Boston-based Nth Cycle, announced her company’s patented electro-extraction technology had entered commercial production and promised a cleaner and more cost-efficient metal-refining process.
Until now, the main processes for recovering valuable materials from spent lithium-ion batteries are pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, both with notable process drawbacks. Hydrometallurgy involves a high quantity of chemicals and pyrometallurgy consumes high amounts of energy and produces hazardous gasses and dust.
How Electro-Extraction Works
Nth Cycle can take disassembled consumer electronics, electric vehicle magnets, and any other e-waste that contains critical minerals as black mass and process it into metal oxides for battery manufacturing at a fraction of the cost and greenhouse gas emissions of current recycling methods, O’Connor said. Moreover, Nth Cycle’s electro-extraction process is modular and can be plugged into existing recycling facilities at a reasonable footprint (< 1,000 sq. ft.), cutting transport costs.
Nth Cycle’s electro-extraction system is based on an electrochemically-modified filter press, combining both filtration and electro-extraction into one unit. This allows operating at low voltages and high current efficiencies, significantly reducing energy costs. In addition, the in-situ base production alleviates the need for highly caustic chemicals while reducing waste, potential hazards, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Battery Recycling Challenges
The need is immediate. With the global lithium-ion battery market projected to experience significant growth over the next decade, the US Department of Energy (DoE) is working with industry to build a robust and sustainable US battery supply chain that will support increased market demand. This past May, DoE announced $3.16 billion in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, including $3.1 billion for battery materials refining and production plants, battery cell and pack manufacturing facilities and recycling facilities, and $60 million to support second-life applications for batteries once used to power electric vehicles, and new processes for recycling materials back into the battery supply chain.
While the volume of electric vehicle batteries is forecast to skyrocket, the near-term economics of battery recycling are not favorable because battery life may outlive the vehicle it powers. This makes efficient and cost-effective mineral and metal recovery even more important. “Maybe 19% of lithium-ion batteries are being recycled now, making it vital we expand beyond batteries to recover nickel, cobalt and other materials,” O’Connor said. “As the world moves towards an electrified, net-zero future we should strive to ensure the tools of that transition are as clean as the future we envision,” O’Connor further explained in a news release. “The Inflation Reduction Act will dramatically accelerate critical mineral mining and refining activity in the US through stringent ‘localized’ requirements for the critical minerals used to make the batteries that power electric vehicles. We expect Nth Cycle’s electro-extraction technology to be a pivotal solution in closing the resulting gap between supply and demand for domestic critical materials through cost-effective, efficient and environmentally conscious refining at home.”
Commercial-Scale Operations Begin
Additionally in September, Nth Cycle began operation of its first commercial-scale electro-extraction unit, called the OYSTER. The unit will process a range of materials for validation with the company’s growing list of near-term partners and is currently processing black mass, the end product from mechanical separation of end-of-life batteries.
“The successful operation of our first commercial-scale unit opens the door for us to deploy our technology widely and quickly,” said Chris Thoren, Nth Cycle VP of engineering. “We are currently upgrading post-industrial waste to produce Nickel MHP, an important material that allows car manufacturers to comply with the new electric vehicle tax credit. With a current footprint of only a few thousand square feet, our system deploys easily in the field in a matter of months, as opposed to the years it typically takes to build and begin operations for traditional refining facilities.”