Sandy Pierce, commodity trader at PADNOS, launched the Future of EV/Battery Recycling panel at the 2022 ISRI Commodity Roundtables by talking about the concept of change. “We may not like it, but we’re all recyclers, our industry is always changing,” she says. “After all we’re here talking about EVs (electric vehicles), we have the agility to adopt changes and help future generations grow in the business.”

Recyclers and EVs

Pierce provided an overview of PADNOS’ process for recycling battery-powered vehicles (hybrids, plug-in hybrids), noting that the company is looking to invest in more technologies as the EV market grows. “At PADNOS we believe innovation is key so we’re constantly using technology to help us better and do more,” she says.

After reviewing the different layouts of battery-powered vehicles—hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fully electric vehicle—Pierce discussed areas of concern for recyclers. One issue is how the weight of electric vehicles will change the metals recovery process. “On average, electric vehicles are about 16% heavier than gas-powered vehicles,” Pierce says. “Most of that weight is in the battery.” To combat that weight, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are using aluminum and other nonferrous metals in place of ferrous-dense metals used in gas-powered vehicles.

She discussed safety concerns with EV batteries—high voltage and thermal runaway. To address the high voltage issue, she expects the industry will need to upgrade its personal protective equipment (PPE) and use 1000-volt gloves to keep employees protected when processing and handling the batteries.

When thermal runaway occurs, the battery cell has shorted and releases a large amount of energy and heat. A rogue cell can cause the electrolyte and cooling fluid to catch fire and set off neighboring cells. The resulting fire is hot and can melt aluminum. Though fires are a serious problem she adds that the percentage of thermal runaway is low. “You can reduce the chance of thermal runaway by separating the batteries,” Pierce says. “That way, if something happens, it’s in a controlled area.”

Pierce noted that the industry has time to effectively prepare for these concerns. “One of our strengths is that we do have time,” she says. “We aren’t seeing large quantities of EVs yet in our facilities.”

Growing the U.S. Market

Bob Mullaney, CEO of IT Asset Partners, began his presentation by discussing the importance for all stakeholders in the chain to work together to make the EV market successful in the U.S. “There are two major companies in China, working on repurposing the batteries, that are over $1 billion,” he says. “The industry is growing fast. China is leading the charge from a tech standpoint and so we need to get caught up in the U.S.”

Mullaney discussed his company’s process for building and expanding into the lithium-ion battery market. “We work with OEMs on how to pack and ship the product, we’re trying to push the U.S. government to get standards for how to move the product safely, and we work with the ITAD (IT Asset Disposition) community, the car industry, and the power companies to move these processes forward to put the product back on the market.”

He noted that China is moving into the Lithium-Iron-Phosphate (LFP) battery space while other countries including the U.S. have focused on Nickel-Cobalt-Manganese (NCM) batteries. LFPs unlike NCMs have little precious metals to recover. “While recyclers can get content out of NCMs, they will only be able to get money back from LFPs if the government subsidizes them,” he says.  “IT Asset Partners is the only company in the U.S. purchasing the LFP product off the market for repurposing. We’re also the largest repurposer of lithium batteries in the U.S.”

Guillermo Espiga, VP, Head of Business Development at Nth Cycle, discussed how much metal will be needed for renewable energy projects beyond electric vehicles. “There will be a lot of metals needed for wind and solar power, but where are the metals coming from?” he asked.

The U.S. isn’t currently mining for these metals and processing is dominated by China. “The U.S. right now has no mining and no refining infrastructure for these critical metals needed for the energy transition,” he says.

Espiga noted that Nth Cycle is working with the Department of Energy and Department of Defense on how to locally source these metals and recycling will be at the forefront to achieve that goal.  “In order to maximize recycling, we need local refining solutions that can upgrade the manufacturing scrap or end-of-life batteries to battery precursor materials. Nth Cycle technology is specifically designed to achieve that goal by its modular design and ability to be co-located to scrap companies,” Espiga says.

While the EV market is a hot topic, Espiga recommends looking beyond vehicles. “Lithium-ion batteries are in our everyday devices,” he says. “Think about cell phones or computers. About 11% of your computer’s weight is the lithium-ion battery, which is high in cobalt.”

Future of the Market

Blake Hurtik, editorial manager at Argus Media, discussed the company’s early work to determine the value for the lithium and other materials recovered from these batteries. “As this market evolves, so is Argus,” he says.

When asked to give advice to those who are just getting started in the battery recycling industry Mullaney noted that there are plenty of opportunities. “The product is in its infancy phase and the second life potential is great,” he says. “This business is going to grow whether we want it to our not, the government is pushing it and investing money, it’s going to need competent companies to do it safely. There’s money if you know what you’re doing, how to design it, and how to do it safely.

Photos Courtesy of ISRI.

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah Zuckerman

Hannah is a Writer & Editor for ISRI's Scrap News. She's interested in a wide range of topics in the recycling industry and is always eager to learn more. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in History and a minored in Creative Writing. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband.