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Build Back Better: Aqua Metals is the Only Company Aligned with U.S. Government Lithium-ion Battery Recycling Vision

By David Regan, VP of Commercial

As part of the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Department of Energy recently announced $3.1 billion in funding for battery manufacturing and recycling. The incentives are part of the over $7 billion the infrastructure bill provides for improving the domestic battery supply chain. 

“As electric cars and trucks continue to grow in popularity within the United States and around the world, we must seize the chance to make advanced batteries—the heart of this growing industry—right here at home,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in a recent statement. “With funding from Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we’re making it possible to establish a thriving battery supply chain in the United States.”  

As the VP of Commercial at Aqua Metals, I am thrilled to see how our efforts for a clean, closed-loop battery recycling infrastructure align with the ​​administration’s goals and initiatives.   

Let’s dig a little deeper into how we are unique in this alignment and what Aqua Metals provides our customers and everyone interested in a clean, energy-secure national economy.   

Energy, Climate Change, and National Security

The DOE program addresses three interconnected challenges: energy, climate change, and national security. 

Let me explain: 

Among the many goals of the law’s total expenditure is to spur investment and innovation in energy storage and electrify the nation’s ground vehicle fleet. The foundation of this effort is lithium-ion batteries (LiB). Building out the energy storage infrastructure and meeting the exploding demand for electric vehicles require a reliable and sustainable LiB supply chain.  

Materials used in lithium-ion batteries include lithium, cobalt, and nickel. Foreign governments have already secured most of the extractive rights agreements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where most of these metals are currently mined. 

Less than two percent of global lithium is found in the US or Canada, writes research fellow Parans Paranthaman on the Oak Ridge National Laboratory website. Citing the DOE’s National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries 2021-2013, Paranthaman notes that the LiB market “is expected to grow by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next decade. The U.S. industrial base must be positioned to respond to this vast increase in market demand that otherwise will likely benefit well-resourced and supported competitors in Asia and Europe.”  

Meeting the demand for LIB batteries with virgin ore is unsustainable, even if we had more access to mine these precious metals. Recycling is essential to meet our lithium-ion supply chain and environmental targets. If we can’t urban-mine materials for LiB batteries, we can’t make the battery. If we can’t make the battery, we can’t make EVs, energy storage systems, and all the other critical pieces in a transformed energy economy. And, it is crucial that we get the recycling piece of this right. 

Lead-acid battery recycling is an excellent case in point. While lead-acid batteries are virtually 100 percent recycled, the recycling process is primarily through smelting, a polluting, carbon-emitting, and dangerous process. In response, Aqua Metals developed AquaRefining, the only clean, climate-friendly, commercially viable lead-acid recycling process on the market. 

We are now maturing the development of our AquaRefining process for lithium-ion battery recycling at scale. With government and regulatory agencies’ cooperation, we now have the technology, leadership, and backing to prevent repeating those mistakes for LiB recycling so that we can build a lithium-ion recycling infrastructure that is truly sustainable. 

The DOE has also stated that” Our vision is for the global production of metals
using just air, water, and clean energy as inputs.”

The two major LiB recycling technology contenders other than AquaRefining are standard hydroprocessing and smelting. Hydroprocessing is not closed-loop, relies on an enormous amount of chemicals, and produces significant waste streams. Smelting, as mentioned, creates air pollution, carbon emissions, and dangerous working environments. Neither approach aligns fully with DOE objectives for metals recycling or global sustainability goals. 

AquaRefining operates at room temperature in a closed-loop method using electricity to plate high purity metals one atom at a time. There are no carbon emissions and 95% less chemical waste streams compared to standard hydro. Aqua Metals purchases electricity through renewable energy credits for all of its production at the Innovation Center, and we expect to be the first carbon-neutral lithium-ion recycling technology in the world. 

Our mission and technology make us the only lithium-ion battery recycler that aligns with the DOE’s three-pronged initiative to address climate change, a new energy infrastructure, and national economic security. 

The Nation’s New Mission Apollo

In the 1960s, government, science, and industry dedicated themselves to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The proposal inspired an innovative nation to fulfill a monumental challenge. In 1961 we launched a man into sub-orbital space. By 1969 Armstrong and Aldrin had landed on the moon. The challenge today is no less monumental and much more consequential. Go time to address climate change was yesterday, but with an aligned effort from innovators and policymakers in all sectors, we can meet the future having learned the lessons of the past.  

If it’s a ​cliche, it’s a good one: Building a new energy, net-zero economy is our nation’s new Mission Apollo. Aqua Metals is squarely aligned with that mission. We are all humbled to be a part of this new energy mission.