The electric vehicle market has grown rapidly in the past 10 years; sales were negligible before 2010 and have increased to over 2 million vehicles in 2019, bringing the total stock of electric cars to 7.2 million globally. This level of production, which demands 200,000 tonnes of lithium-ion battery cathode material annually, along with the high number of batteries that will be retired in near future have created a growing interest among automakers and entrepreneurs to develop a range of end-of-life scenarios for spent battery packs, including the recovery of materials from used battery cells, in particular high-value and energy-intensive cathode materials such as nickel and cobalt.

In December 2020, the US Department of Energy announced the seven winners of Phase II of its Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize. The goal of this competition is to develop and demonstrate processes that, when scaled, can capture 90% of all end-of-life lithium-ion batteries in the US, and re-introduce key materials back into the supply chain. Here, we provide an overview of some of the winning companies who are leading the innovation in technology and operations for large-scale battery recycling in the US.

Li Industries: This startup company is focusing on two innovative solutions to facilitate battery recycling. Its Smart Battery Sorting uses sensors to detect physical and chemical features of the battery which is fed into an AI-based software to guide the sorting of the batteries. The company’s second innovation is Direct Lithium-ion Battery Recycling that regenerates commercial-grade cathode materials using recovered materials from spent battery packs. While details have not been provided on the company’s website, the regeneration process most probably relies on materials recovery in a mixture form rather than individual metals. This approach takes advantage of the limited battery chemistries of electric vehicles to reproduce known cathode materials.

OnTo Technologies: The company has developed a suite of technologies for recycling of Li-ion batteries. Among those is the Cathode-Healing technology that directly recovers clean cathode particles from used batteries. The company also uses a patented technology to recover cathode in the precursor form.

Renewance: As a provider of software solutions and consultancy services, this company is focused on the management of battery assets to help companies find economically viable and regulatory compliant solutions for recycling and reusing of their batteries. The company’s Renewance Connect is a digital platform to manage the full life cycle of industrial batteries.

Titan Advanced Energy solutions: The solution offered by this company supports the reuse of Li-ion batteries rather than their recycling. When these batteries reach to a state that cannot meet the standard requirements of electric vehicles, they can still be useful for other applications, such as stationary storage. However, understanding the second life potential of the batteries requires a fast and inexpensive method to determine the battery’s state of health. The company has developed an ultrasound-based system to measure the health condition of a battery within a few seconds at a high level of accuracy.

The above innovations and many others that are happening across the globe are facilitating the development of a circular economy for electric vehicles. As these vehicles are rapidly becoming commonplace, early planning on the life cycle management of their components is critical to mitigate any environmental risks and to support materials sustainability.