Lithium-ion batteries, like those used for electromobility, will soon be produced in North America with locally recycled metal—thanks to BASF’s partnership with Nanotech Energy—reducing the battery’s CO2 footprint.

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IN TODAY’S FAST-PACED world, lithium-ion batteries have become an integral part of our lives, powering everything from our smartphones to electric cars. The demand for these batteries is skyrocketing, with global production of electric vehicles growing by a factor of five in just the past three years. It is estimated that by 2030, a staggering 49 million electric cars will be produced annually, each equipped with a lithium-ion battery that has an average lifespan of 10-15 years.

However, this growing demand poses a significant challenge. The Earth’s limited resources cannot keep up with the need for raw materials like cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which are essential for battery production. Mining these metals has a clear environmental impact, further exacerbating the problem. This is where battery recycling comes into play, offering a solution to both the increasing demand for lithium-ion batteries and the scarcity of naturally occurring metals.

Massive Potential For Recycling and Benefits

The reality is that the majority of lithium-ion batteries end up as waste, with only 5 percent being recycled globally, according to a 2022 report. This amounts to a staggering 8 million tons of waste. However, the potential of battery recycling goes beyond keeping valuable metals in the loop. It also holds a tremendous environmental benefit, as recycled metals have a lower CO2 impact than mined ones.

BASF, a leading global chemical company, recognizes the urgency of recycling batteries locally and has partnered with Nanotech Energy, a producer of lithium-ion batteries, to establish a closed-loop battery recycling system in North America. This innovative system aims to recover valuable metals from end-of-life batteries, reducing the region’s carbon footprint associated with battery production.

How the Closed-Loop Battery Recycling Process Works

Instead of solely relying on mined metals (also known as virgin metals) for use in new lithium-ion batteries, the closed-loop system takes end-of-life batteries and the off-spec materials from battery producers and recycles them to create new ones. BASF and Nanotech Energy are also partnering with the American Battery Technology Company (ABTC), a battery recycling and metal extraction startup, and TODA Advanced Materials, a manufacturer of precursor cathode active materials (PCAM) used in cathode active materials (CAM) for lithium-ion batteries. Cathode active materials are one of the most important components of lithium-ion batteries, as they play a significant role in determining the performance of the battery and, therefore, the driving range of the electric vehicle.

In the closed-loop battery recycling process, each company contributes at different stages, forming a sequential chain of operations. To start, ABTC dismantles and shreds the used batteries and scrap material in Reno, Nevada, to create the so-called black mass. The company then extracts the necessary high-quality metals from the black mass. This part is crucial.

“It sounds simple, but it’s very difficult to get metal that’s high purity enough to be used in the battery supply chain,” highlights Michael Burdick, BASF’s business manager for battery recycling. “We’ve been working with ABTC behind the scenes since 2019. So, we’ve already been taking their recycled metal and working to prove that we can make comparable cathode active material with recycled metal as we could with virgin metal. An important aspect is that recycled metals can reduce the CO2 impact of batteries by about 25 percent compared to the use of primary metals from mines.” To validate this statistic, BASF does an analysis of the entire process, both in-house and with third parties.

After ABTC extracts and purifies the necessary metals, they are shipped to TODA in Ontario, Canada, which uses the material to produce PCAM. BASF then processes the PCAM to produce CAM in Battle Creek, Michigan. “CAM is the most expensive part of the cell by far,” says Burdick. “Using recycled metals to produce new CAM, we not only make the process more sustainable but also reduce the price of a battery and ultimately the costs of an electric vehicle. We expect to have recycled metal in our CAM starting this year, making us the first to do so in the North American market.”

Utilizing CAM produced by BASF that is based on recycled metals, Nanotech Energy incorporates these materials to create their lithium-ion batteries in Chico, California. These batteries find their way into consumer electronics and electric vehicles.

Metal Management reduces supply risk and ensures EHS compliance
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Addressing Technical Challenges to Enable a Closed-Loop

One of the most technically challenging aspects of the recycling process is the collection and safe transportation of the materials, as end-of-life batteries and battery production scrap are classified as dangerous goods. BASF’s expertise and experience in Europe and Asia helps it minimize risks.

“It’s not easy,” Burdick says. “How do you source the batteries, and how are you able to collect and package them and transport them safely? That’s a really underrated part of this whole equation. And we are committed—with Nanotech, ABTC, and TODA—to provide a sustainable solution.”

By championing a localized supply chain for battery materials in North America, BASF and its partners are not only enhancing environmental sustainability but also ensuring greater availability and cost-effectiveness of lithium-ion batteries in the region.

“There are clear advantages from an environmental and cost perspective,” says Burdick of having a closed-loop system in North America. “But equally important: You can mitigate the risk of supply chain disruptions. So, for us, having a true North American closed loop is key.”

The power of closed-loop battery recycling lies not only in its ability to reduce waste and environmental impact but also in its potential to shape a more sustainable future. With BASF and its partners leading the way, the journey towards a greener world becomes an exciting reality. To check out what else BASF is up to, click HERE.

This story was produced by WIRED Brand Lab for BASF.

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