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The Current

Powering the New Energy Economy: Heeding Lessons From the Past as we build the New Electrical Revolution

By David Regan, VP of Commercial

In the late 19th century, the first Electrical Revolution lit up the world. Now, electricity courses across continents and in the devices we use every day. 

Revolutions accelerate history–the speed of change–and a new electrical energy revolution is afoot. Electric vehicles, wind turbines, and an increasingly digitized economy represent the face of our current electric revolution. 

Until recently, the orthodoxy of electric cars is that gas rules and the electric vehicle (EV) market is a niche for those who can afford it. However, 2021 may have arguably been the tipping point of the new electrical revolution with an 80% year-on-year EV sales growth. 

The 2021 BloombergNEF Electric Vehicle Outlook Report projects EV sales to reach 50% market share in new car and truck sales by 2030. 

The linchpin to all this is lithium-ion batteries – how we use them in innovative ways to power our blossoming electrical revolution and, just as importantly, what we do with them when they’re done. Fortunately, history provides insight on a viable path forward. 

Scale, Supply Chains, Sustainability, and Lessons of the Lead-Acid Blues

Before we dive into lithium-ion, let’s look at lead-acid batteries and the hopeful and cautionary lessons they foretell. They highlight a way forward for lithium-ion batteries (LiB) and the new energy economy.

Commitment to Recycling Lead Acid Batteries

There are more than a billion cars on the road. Each carries about 40 pounds of lead. A linear supply chain for lead-acid batteries is unsustainable. Even if we wanted to (and we don’t) mine a continual stream of virgin lead ore, mining won’t meet the demand. Therefore, lead-acid batteries are the most recycled commodity on Earth, with a recycling rate of nearly 100%.

The lesson for us here is that metals recycling from batteries at scale is not only feasible; it’s essential. The same will soon be true for lithium-ion batteries given the projected demand growth. 

How You Recycle is Just as Important as Recycling 

It may appear that lead-acid battery recycling is a poster child for closed-loop recycling – the circular ideal for sustainable economics. Unfortunately, smelting, the industry standard for lead-acid metals recovery, is one of the dirtiest processes on the planet.  

Smelting uses extreme heat to recover metals, producing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, particulate matter, landfilled waste streams and slag. It also creates one of the dirtiest and most unsafe working conditions you will find anywhere.


There are two crucial takeaways from our experience with lead-acid batteries that we must now apply to lithium-ion batteries:

  • Meeting future demand requires closed-loop, large-scale recycling. 
  • Any adopted closed-loop process must be ethical, humane, economically viable, and environmentally sustainable. It also must come online within the next decade or sooner.

The good news is that this is achievable, but only if we grab the opportunity to do LiB recycling right, building a recycling infrastructure that accounts for both optimism and caution. 

Here’s how. 

Aqua Metals: Clean, Closed-Loop Recycling 

Since 2015, Aqua Metals has pioneered a clean, safe, and circular process called AquaRefining. 

This process is a room temperature, emissions-free, hydrometallurgical process for high-value metals recovery. Li AquaRefining employs an electroplating method that builds metal one atom at a time generating very high purity products. Chemicals used in the process are recycled, further closing the loop, drastically lowering waste streams, and reducing costs. 

We are focused on bringing online an Li AquaRefing pilot system for lithium-ion battery recycling by late 2022.

There is urgency in our mission. Estimates suggest 705,000 tons of end-of-life Li-ion batteries by 2025 and millions by 2030. By the end of the decade, the market for LiB recycling should top $18.7 billion. 

The Triple Bottom Line

The promise of EVs, renewable energy, and energy storage is moot if we rely on old, dirty technology to recycle the coming tsunami of spent lithium-ion batteries. 

Now is the golden opportunity to make this electrical revolution what it is meant to be: a new energy paradigm built on circularity, sustainability, and common sense. Aqua Metals and our partners stand ready to help lead the way, one cobalt atom at a time.