Manual disassembly won’t be ideal when the company starts accepting more materials, says Andy Hamilton, Redwood’s vice president of manufacturing. Eventually, Redwood hopes to automate more of that sorting process, though building automated systems capable of handling the variety of batteries the company accepts will likely be a challenge.
After being sorted and disassembled, batteries that still hold a charge can be loaded onto a conveyor belt and moved into one of four massive chambers for a process called calcination, where the batteries are cooked at high temperatures to discharge them and remove solvents.
The material is then pulverized before entering a hydrometallurgical process to separate the individual elements.
Despite recent technological advances, recycling won’t meet demand for battery materials anytime soon, says Alyssa Kendall, an energy systems researcher at the University of California, Davis. With demand still growing exponentially, recycled batteries will at best account for about half of nickel and lithium supply by 2050.
However, as battery chemistry evolves, this percentage may change, as is already happening with cobalt. Batteries in electric vehicles today contain less cobalt than before, and cell manufacturers are constantly finding ways to use even less of the expensive metal. As a result, recycled cobalt could account for 85% of needed supplies by 2040, Kendall says.
Even if recycling cannot completely replace mining, reducing the need for more mines can reduce the social and environmental burden of producing new batteries. Many metals for batteries are mined in Africa, Asia, Central and South America. Mining in these regions is often associated with human rights abuses, including forced and child labor, as well as significant air and water pollution, according to the International Energy Agency.
Waiting for the tsunami battery
Some in the battery recycling business argue that the industry will not need political support because the materials contained in batteries will be valuable enough to justify recycling them. But recent policy moves in the U.S. could give recyclers like Redwood an extra boost.
Because Redwood’s manufacturing facility is located in the US, the company may be eligible for manufacturing tax credits under the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act. The IRA will also stimulate demand for raw materials from companies such as Redwood. For cars to qualify for the $7,500 tax break, automakers would need to source materials and manufacture batteries in the U.S. or free trade partners.