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Technology start-ups are striving to make recycling electric vehicle batteries cleaner and more economical. Investors are pouring billions of dollars into recycling facilities around the world to prepare for a surge in discarded packaging and regulations requiring minimum recycled content in new electric vehicle batteries.
As the first batch of electric cars nears the end of their roughly 10-year lifespan, traditional recycling methods for lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles are extremely energy intensive and involve incinerating used batteries at more than 1,400°C.
A number of startups, including Hong Kong-based GRST and Oregon-based OnTo Technology, as well as larger companies such as German chemical giant BASF, are working on water-based technology that is seen as a commercially viable and environmentally friendly alternative.
“Lithium-ion batteries were not designed for recycling. “The battery packs in electric cars are a nightmare,” said Wojciech Mrozik, a battery recycling expert at Newcastle University. “They are not uniform and contain foams and adhesives that require considerable manual labor to separate.”
Water-based binders are “the future,” he said, adding that they are “less harmful to the environment” than their chemical counterparts and require “less aggressive methods to recover the metals.”
Global investment in battery startups this year – which reached $9.2 billion through September, according to Crunchbase data – is expected to exceed that of the previous two years, defying a broader decline in technology investment. Battery-related startups raised a total of $7.8 billion in 2022, up from $12 billion in 2021.
Most lithium-ion batteries use toxic chemicals to bind the metals to electrodes. The typical recycling method is to melt down discarded batteries or dissolve them in harsh chemicals to remove the binder and recover metals such as cobalt, nickel and copper as metal alloys.
Under the process developed by Hong Kong-based GRST, backed by the founder of Taiwanese chipmaker Realtek Semiconductor and Hong Kong clothing giant TAL Apparel, the spent batteries can be dissolved in water to obtain the so-called black mass of valuable metals from which they are made consist of cathodes and anodes.
GRST, a winner of this year’s Earthshot Prize for innovations addressing climate challenges, hopes to raise $50 million over the next two years to increase production at the battery plant it co-owns in Zhejiang province. In the long term, GRST hopes to lease its water-based binder and recycling technology to other battery manufacturers.
Previous attempts to bring water-based binders to market failed due to poor battery performance. “Historically, water-based solvents have not been as stable as chemical solvents,” said GRST co-founder Justin Hung.
Studies have shown that water-based binders can cause corrosion, but Hung said GRST has solved that problem. According to its own customer tests, its batteries perform well compared to chemical-based counterparts in terms of energy density, safety and durability.
OnTo Technology, a recycling startup in Oregon, has begun commercial testing of a water-based binder developed by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This year, BASF invested in the production of water-based binders in two of its factories in China.
Experts said low recycling rates — less than 5 percent of used lithium-ion batteries are recycled in the U.S. — are due to a lack of investment and regulation. Most lithium-ion batteries are sent to waste disposal facilities or landfills, where the toxic chemicals in the binder can cause fires or leach into water systems.
“Recycling has not yet been a top priority for the industry. Existing technology for recycling lithium-ion batteries is not ready for deployment at scale,” said Sarah Montgomery, co-founder and CEO of Infyos, a battery supply chain technology company.
But the tide was starting to change, she said, pointing to regulatory changes pushed by the European Union to increase battery recycling rates and make the process more sustainable.
In July, the European Council adopted the “Battery Passport”, which will introduce a mandatory minimum proportion of recycled materials for electric vehicle and industrial batteries by 2031.
The changes come as demand for batteries increases in line with the increasing use of electric vehicles. McKinsey analysts predict that the value of the entire lithium-ion battery supply chain will increase 30 percent annually starting in 2022, reaching more than $400 billion by the end of the decade.
Analysts said companies like GRST could benefit from Western capitals’ alarm over China’s dominance in the electric vehicle supply chain. More than three quarters of the world’s lithium-ion batteries come from China, mainly manufactured by CATL and BYD.
“Europe in particular is heavily dependent on China. There is a strong push to become more self-sufficient by building a circular supply chain, from using raw materials dug from the ground to reusing spent batteries,” said Montgomery. “There is a flood of regulations coming that will incentivize the development of the recycling industry.”