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First Closed-Loop Metal-Recycling Technology Offers Sustainable Future for a Battery-Powered World

Aqua Metals’ closed-loop metal-recycling process is revolutionizing metal sourcing and disposal — and eliminating the negative side effects of EV battery production.

As the world looks to decarbonize, many eyes are on electric vehicles (EV) and renewable-energy infrastructures to pave the way. Over the next 20 years, the EV market is set to grow substantially — by 2050, a projected 300 million EVs on the road by 2050, accounting for 60 percent of new car sales. The world will also become more reliant on renewable sources — by 2050, 90 percent of the world's energy will be derived from renewables.

Batteries may be electrifying our future, but their production remains problematic: To meet the demands of our booming EV and renewable-energy industries, significantly more raw materials are needed for battery production — in particular, crucial metals including lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese. Mining for these metals puts a heavy strain on the surrounding environment — large areas of earth are removed and a vast amount of water is required (it takes 500,000 gallons of water to mine one tonne of lithium), which can lead to nearby reservoirs being poisoned and water being diverted from local communities. In addition to this, metal mining has been linked to human rights violations and child labor.

Another problem with batteries is their limited lifespan — EV batteries only last between 10-20 years; and when disposed to landfill, they leak toxic chemicals into the environment, contaminating water and surrounding ecosystems. Batteries have potential to be an incredible alternative to fossil-fueled-power; however, ensuring ethical and sustainable sourcing and disposal of the raw materials needed for their production is crucial to ensure a sustainable transition.

Luckily, Aqua Metals has created a solution. The Reno, Nevada-based company has pioneered a way to recycle these crucial metals — closing the loop for metal recycling and producing pure metals that can be put back into the supply chain. Currently the world’s only company that has produced a commercially proven sustainable, closed-loop metal-recycling process, Aqua Metals’ technology mitigates the environmental and ethical concerns associated with the extraction and disposal of these critical metals.

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“Recycling metals is not ‘difficult,’ per se; but to do it sustainably can be a challenge. Our innovation takes a well-understood technology pathway [electroplating — discovered in 1805] and applies it in a novel way to selectively recover critical metals from spent batteries,” Aqua Metals CEO Steve Cotton told Sustainable Brands®. “This enables us to recover high-purity metals — as we quite literally plate them, atom-by-atom, using electricity. Combine this with our patent-pending, unique process for recovering lithium in the form of hydroxide directly, and we can recover all valuable metals contained within lithium-ion batteries (LiB).”

Aqua Metals’ process obtains critical metals from spent, shredded lithium-ion batteries — also called “black mass.” This material is run through a filter press, which removes graphite and any remnants of aluminum; then, the copper is electroplated.

Lithium hydroxide is recovered directly with the patent-pending, closed-loop, electro-hydrometallurgical (metal-recovery) process. The solvent used is also regenerated as a byproduct of this process — eliminating the need for a constant supply of chemicals and reducing waste by as much as 95 percent compared to typical recycling. They then electroplate nickel, followed by “combo plating” cobalt and manganese hydroxide. This ensures a cleaner recycling process and offers a solution for reducing climate change — rather than solving one problem but creating another, by continuing to damage our environment.

"Aqua Metals is committed to driving sustainable energy through recycling critical minerals from lithium batteries, building a low-carbon domestic supply chain and reducing the environmental impact of clean-energy technologies,” says Dave McMurtry, Chief Business Officer at Aqua Metals. “Sustainable solutions are crucial in addressing global challenges; and we are excited to be pioneering a critical piece of the circular supply chain by recycling batteries using clean electricity. Harnessing recycled materials sustainably is essential for building a domestic lithium battery industry and closing the loop for critical minerals.”

The Department of Energy projects demand for critical materials needed for EV batteries and other clean-energy technologies to increase 400-600 percent in the coming decades. As this demand increases, a clean recycling infrastructure will be necessary to ensure the transition to a circular clean-energy economy without creating new negative impacts on our environment through air, soil, and water pollution via mining and other recycling processes.

Aqua Metals' technology is modular, which allows it to be tremendously scalable. The company can adapt to the needs of its customers and off-takers — building large, centralized facilities or adding on modular capacity to existing sites/campuses near battery manufacturing or black-mass processing. As an example, the company's Waltham campus complex will have room for 10,000+ tons per year.

Cotton says the company hopes to help create a sustainable, circular supply of critical battery minerals in the US that helps meet the goals of the Inflation Reduction Act and provides a technology pathway to recycling that does not further damage the environment. In five years’ time, Aqua Metals expects to have a fully up and running Waltham facility in Reno — providing thousands of tons of sustainably recycled metals to a wide array of partners and off-takers throughout the industry.

“We are also aiming to explore additional facilities — both standalone and dedicated to customer needs — and to have created hundreds of good-paying jobs in the advanced-energy economy, centered in the ‘Nevada Lithium Loop,’” Cotton says.