Electric Cars Are Taking Off, but When Will Battery Recycling Follow?

Benjamin Reynaga used power tools to hack his way into a beat-up hybrid Honda Fit at an auto dismantling plant at the edge of the Mojave Desert until he reached the most important part of the car: its lithium-ion battery.

The vehicle itself was set to be crushed, but the battery would be treated with care. It would be disassembled nearby and then sent to Nevada, where another company, Redwood Materials, would recover some of the valuable metals inside.

The plant where Mr. Reynaga works, in Adelanto, Calif., is at the front lines of what auto industry experts, environmentalists and the Biden administration believe could be an important part of a global shift to electric vehicles: recycling and reusing metals like cobalt, lithium and nickel. If batteries past their prime supply the ingredients for new ones, electric cars, trucks and vans would become more affordable and environmentally sustainable.

Cars and trucks, either at the end of their functional lives or damaged from accidents, sit at the LKQ plant before being recycled for parts.Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

“We’re just getting ready,” said Nick Castillo, who manages the plant for LKQ Corporation. The facility mostly dismantles gasoline vehicles but is preparing to take apart more hybrid and electric vehicles. “We know it’s eventually going to take over — it’s going to be the future.”

Sales of electric cars and trucks are taking off, and the auto and battery industries are investing billions of dollars to upgrade and build factories. These cars could help address climate change, but batteries pose their own problems. Raw materials can be hard to mine, are often found in countries with poor human rights records and require processing that leaves behind noxious waste.

A Redwood Materials employee, John Caylor, dismantling discarded electric scooter batteries.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times
Redwood Materials employees starting to dismantle a Ford electric car battery.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times

Fortunately, those battery ingredients are also highly reusable. And now a race is on to collect and recycle used lithium-ion batteries. Venture capitalists, automakers and energy companies are pouring money into dozens of start-up recycling companies in North America and Europe.

Discarded batteries waiting to be sorted at Redwood Materials.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times

“We’re weaning our entire society off of fossil and carbon-intensive fuels — we can’t underestimate the scale of that challenge,” said Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham in England, who studies battery recycling. “The demand is going to be so enormous.”

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But for all the optimism, this new business faces a daunting challenge: Few batteries will be available to recycle for a decade or more. Tesla, which dominates the electric vehicle business, began selling cars in 2008 and until 2017 sold fewer than 100,000 cars a year. There are other sources to recycle today, including hybrids and consumer electronics, but the supply is limited and collection can be challenging.

That has left recycling companies in a difficult position. They need to invest in factories, machinery and workers or risk losing ground to competitors. But if they invest too quickly, they could run out of money before lots of aging batteries arrive at their loading docks.

“You have people that are just burning through money, because you don’t have the feed stock to be able to make the material to sell,” said Eric Frederickson, the managing director of operations for Call2Recycle, a nonprofit program that helps recyclers find old batteries.

The companies also have to figure out how to find, collect and dismantle batteries. They have to work with many dismantlers, scrap yards and nonprofit groups. And because batteries are prone to fires and packaged and built differently from model to model, taking them apart can be complicated and dangerous.

Among companies recycling batteries, Redwood stands out. The company was founded by J.B. Straubel, a former top Tesla executive, and has raised more than $1 billion from investors, it said. Redwood sees itself primarily as a producer of battery materials — made from recovered or mined metals — and has established recycling partnerships with Ford Motor, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. Redwood also recycles scrap from a battery plant run by Panasonic and Tesla, near Reno, Nev.

On a flat, dusty tract of land near that plant, Redwood is building out a 175-acre campus. There, the company recovers metal from old batteries and produces materials for new ones. Redwood announced last week that it would spend at least $3.5 billion on another campus in South Carolina, in a region of the country that is fast becoming a hub for battery and electric vehicle production.

Batteries have an anode and a cathode, which contains most of a battery’s valuable metal. When a battery is used, lithium ions move from the anode to the cathode. The flow is reversed while charging.

Cathode material compressed into a large block is stored on pallets at Li-Cycle in Rochester, N.Y.Credit…Libby March for The New York Times
Anode material that is also compressed into large blocks at Li-Cycle.Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

Most anodes and cathodes come from China, but Redwood hopes to change that. At the Nevada facility, the company is making thin anode foilusing recycled copper. Redwood also plans to make cathode materials there using recycled cobalt and a mix of recycled and mined lithium and nickel. Panasonic recently said that it planned to use Redwood’s products in its batteries at two U.S. factories.

Redwood regularly receives used batteries and scrap from suppliers like LKQ and partners like Panasonic. Some of that material is first heated at low temperatures in a proprietary process. All batteries go through chemical baths and other processes to isolate and extract specific metals.

Redwood buys virgin metal because there aren’t enough old batteries and scrap. But mining and transporting can be carbon-intensive and subject to supply chain problems, so the company’s executives said they were eager to use more recovered metals.

“We want to take in as much recycled content as we can because it’s an available feedstock that’s local,” said Kevin Kassekert, Redwood’s chief operating officer. “But we will have to augment that.”

Storage at Li-Cycle’s plant in Rochester. The company is focused on recycling.Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

Other businesses are focused solely on recycling. Li-Cycle, a Canadian company founded in 2016 by two former engineering consultants — Ajay Kochhar and Tim Johnston — is building several plants.

At collection centers in Alabama, Arizona, New York and Ontario, the company breaks down batteries and manufacturing scrap. In its plant in Rochester, N.Y., a conveyor belt ferries materials up one story before dropping them into a vat where they are shredded while submerged in a proprietary chemical solution to prevent fires.

Discarded cell batteries await processing at Li-Cycle.Credit…Libby March for The New York Times
A conveyor belt carries batteries to be recycled into reusable material at Li-Cycle.Credit…Libby March for The New York Times

The resulting pieces are separated and Li-Cycle then harvests a granular substance, known as black mass, which is processed into its component metals elsewhere. But Li-Cycle is building a $175 million facility, also in Rochester, to turn the substance into battery-grade lithium, cobalt and nickel.

Li-Cycle, which became a publicly traded company in 2021, said it has more than 100 battery suppliers, including a partnership with Ultium Cells, a joint venture between General Motors and the South Korean battery company LG Energy Solution. Li-Cycle also has strategic partnerships with the mining giant Glencore and Koch Industries, the privately held conglomerate with extensive fossil fuel operations. Together, those two businesses have invested $300 million in Li-Cycle.

“We were fortunate that we took the path that we did, when we did,” Mr. Kochhar said. “This is an industry that does require, just like battery making, a good amount of capital.”

Battery recycling is still relatively new in North America, but more mature companies abroad could provide a hint of what’s to come. In China, for example, there are many recyclers but a shortage of material.

“They have too much capacity and too few batteries to recycle,” said Hans Eric Melin, who founded Circular Energy Storage, a consulting firm that specializes in the market for old lithium-ion batteries. “I think that’s exactly the situation that we will face in both Europe and North America.”

It could take many years for recycling to become a thriving industry in the United States. Relatively few electric vehicles are on the road and most are new. Smartphones, laptops and other electronics also contain lithium-ion batteries, but they are difficult to collect and there are not enough to meet the growing needs of the auto industry.

But lawmakers and environmental groups want recycling to take off quickly to cut carbon emissions, protect the nation from an overreliance on foreign producers and promote the safe disposal of batteries.

The Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Biden over the summer, for example, requires a growing share of a battery’s valuable minerals to be sourced domestically or from a trade ally before vehicles qualify for tax credits. And the European Union appears close to requiring a minimum amount of recycled content in all electric vehicle batteries.

For now, recyclers are focused on collecting factory-floor scrap.

Massive battery plants are being spun up around the world, including many in the United States. Those factories could provide the recyclers with a great deal of defective or excess battery material, particularly in their early years.

“There are always inevitable losses along the process of creating a cell for a lithium ion battery,” said Sarah Colbourn, a research analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. “Because of that, there’s really an opportunity to recycle that waste.”

Such scrap will account for about 78 percent of recyclable materials globally in 2025 and remain the main source for recyclers until the mid-2030s, when used batteries take over, according to a recent report by Ms. Colbourn.

But recycling those dead batteries won’t be easy. Collecting scrap is relatively simple. Similar materials from factories are processed in batches. Used batteries come in different shapes and sizes.

Standardized designs and construction methods could help, but most auto and battery companies have shown little interest in that. Instead, they are working on different approaches as they compete to make cars that can travel farther on a charge.

In March, as Redwood prepared to move into the larger campus near Reno, workers at a smaller plant in nearby Carson City were busy processing used consumer electronics. Some sorted through large bins of batteries from power tools, laptops and other devices, while others oversaw conveyor belts dumping batteries into rotating bins to be heated and broken down.

Heath Millim, a Redwood employee, shovels discarded batteries while two other employees sort the battery types in Redwood’s plant in Carson City, Nev.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times

“There’s an opportunity for us to revolutionize how material is recovered and sent back into the supply chain on the E.V. side,” Mr. Kassekert, the Redwood executive, said. “A metal atom can be recycled an infinite amount of times — it’s just a matter of how do you get it efficiently.”

After years of losing ground to China, U.S. and European executives and lawmakers are optimistic that battery recycling can quickly help establish a domestic battery industry. But they may be in for a rude awakening, said Mr. Melin, the consultant.

Electric vehicle batteries can last 15 to 20 years. Even then, many batteries will find second lives — to store wind and solar energy for use when it’s not windy or sunny, for example — before they are recycled.

“There won’t be a lot of material to recycle for a long time,” Mr. Melin said. “And that is obviously a positive thing because the main reason is that the batteries are in the cars.”

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