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Why AquaRefining Is a Superior Recycling Technology for Lithium-Ion Batteries

By Ben Taecker, Chief Engineering and Operations Officer

As the Chief Engineering and Operations Officer at Aqua Metals, I have the opportunity to help the company innovate the cleanest, most efficient, and cost-competitive lithium-ion battery (LiB) recycling processes in development and soon to come to market.

In a previous article, Vice President of Commercial David Regan mentioned that virtually all lead-acid batteries are recycled through a dirty and dangerous smelting process. I worked for a lead-acid battery smelter and know first-hand the problems that result from smelting and how critical recycling is to the environmental equation of batteries.  

Once I understood the science and technological process of AquaRefining, I knew that it was the future of lead-acid and lithium-ion battery recycling.

Here’s why.

Proven Technology

AquaRefining is the only proven and patented hydrometallurgical recycling process commercially available for spent lead-acid batteries. Our task now is to transfer our success with lead-acid battery recycling to the fast-growing lithium-ion battery market.

With the coming boom in EV sales (some say the boom has already begun), there is no time to waste implementing the technology and processes for a clean, economical, and sustainable LiB recycling infrastructure.

Other Options and Their Drawbacks

The only process commercially in use today is smelting. Standard hydroprocessing is under development and has not been proven effective at scale. Each brings significant environmental and economic drawbacks. 

Smelting is dirty and dangerous. To rely on smelters to scale LiB recycling to required levels over the coming years defeats the entire rationale of electrifying the transportation sector. The emissions from smelting would be a huge step backward from the environmental gains of electric vehicles, even if the electrical “fuel” comes from renewable sources.

Standard hydroprocessing consumes enormous amounts of chemicals to recycle the metals in the battery. It is not a closed-loop process, producing large chemical and solid waste streams. This waste requires processing and disposal, which also raises costs. To date, no hydroprocessing LiB recycling technology is proven at scale.

Neither smelting nor standard hydroprocessing technologies can overcome their limitations. For the promise of electrifying transportation to achieve emissions targets, a more innovative recycling technology must be employed.

And this is precisely where AquaMetals fits. 

Clean, Efficient, Pure

AquaRefining excels where other methods fall short. Where hydro uses a chemical reagent in the recycling process, AquaRefining uses electricity. Where smelling requires high heat, AquaRefining operates at room temperature. There is no loading up with chemicals at the start of the day, no disposal of those chemicals at the end of the day, and no furnace releasing pollutants and carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

By reducing chemical throughput, emissions, and energy intensity, the closed-loop AquaRefining process aligns with the full potential of a circular clean energy economy.

Another crucial benefit of AquaRefining is its ability to produce a higher purity product much more efficiently than any other process. As we prove the process for LiB recycling, we estimate up to 50 percent lower operating costs than other methods.

Putting the Puzzle Pieces Together

Our hands-on experience in the lead-acid and LiB industries positions us for success over other neophytes in the green-tech recycling industry.

Our bench-scale testing has successfully plated nickel and cobalt, two critical metals in lithium-ion batteries. At our Innovation Center in Nevada, we have also produced nickel sulfate, cobalt sulfate, copper, lithium hydroxide, and manganese dioxide from black mass made from used LiBs.

With successful bench testing of each step, we are putting the pieces together in an integrated pilot system scheduled for the early fall of 2022. Initially, we plan on 6 to 10 tons of throughput per month, ramping that to over 80 tons per month. We are already beginning to engage potential offtake partners and working towards meeting specifications.

As the pieces come together, I am more passionate than ever about the AquaRefining process. With each step, I am convinced that it is the most economically competitive, safe, efficient, and environmentally sustainable means of meeting the global LiB recycling and supply chain challenges at scale.

These are exciting times to work at an industry-changing company like Aqua Metals.