In June 2022, ABTC CEO Ryan Melsert shared industry insights on expert panels at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence’s “Battery Gigafactories USA 2022” in Washington, D.C., and FastMarkets’ “Lithium Supply and Battery Raw Materials Conference 2022” in Phoenix, AZ. Some highlights and excerpts from each panel are included below.
Panel: “Closing the Lithium-Ion Loop”.
Chaired by Anna Shpitsburg: U.S. Department of State’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Transformation.
Ryan Melsert Panel Excerpts:
On the Significance of Recycling
“Recycling is important because it’s one of the few things that can address all of the challenges at the same time. So when we look at the domestic economy, we have a security of supply challenge – having access to enough of these minerals to really supply domestic facilities, we have a cost of supply issue – sourcing minerals from recycling operations can even be lower cost than virgin source materials, and we have the environmental impact challenge.
Taking these minerals from end-of-life or waste products can have a much lower environmental impact than a lot of the virgin-sourced operations. Each of those three issues would be enough of a reason on their own to make this worthwhile, and a sustainably designed recycling process can really tackle all three of them at one time.”
Recycling v. Primary Extraction
“Neither can solve the problem on its own. We do need to ramp up recycling capacity, so that all the products return to the market instead of just one, and it can be very quick to market. There’s a large amount of material available today, the facilities can be brought up in a relatively short period of time, and we can address challenges today. But eventually there will be limited valuable throughput material coming back into the market, whereas primary resources – and there’s very little manufacturing capacity in the US to sell, but there are large amounts of mineral resources. So developing new processes that can recover these minerals from domestic based resources in an economically competitive fashion, will take longer to bring to market but at the end of the day will make a much larger impact for much larger throughput scale facilities. Many companies choose one route or the other, but we see large advantages to doing both under one roof.”
Localizing Commercial Recycling
“The reason there is such a void locally for recycling capacity and technology is that everything is innovative. To have a real commercial scale recycling plant, you really start to have throughputs that are equal to production capacity at the cell level in the same region. We have hundreds of gigafactories for cells under construction throughout the world, about a dozen just in the US, but there are zero gigafactory scale recycling plants.
So this industry is essentially growing into a void and everything itself becomes innovative. The end-of-life material is very important to work with, working with intermediate defects is very important, and the end of the pipeline – when you make a recycling system, your end product can be intermediate materials, it can be refined metals, it can be active products that go back to the cell manufacturing, and how far we take that portion of the closed loop within the recycling end loop is going to play a large factor in the economics and how it actually fits into the rest of the domestic supply chain. When done at scale, and when you have the throughput of each of those sections of the supply chain in one facility or in one geographical region, it can be entirely localized. Most of the materials are elemental, and the elements are never consumed themselves. Once you close that vat during manufacturing, there’s no mass entering or leaving. On an elemental basis, everything you need to make a new cell is there at end-of-life. So once we reach an essentially steady-state of batteries that are occupied mass in the field, all of the materials can come from recycled content. Because of the issue of growing so quickly, we still do need virgin material to grow the throughput of that loop, but we can maintain that loop just by having sustainable and innovative recycling systems.
Battery Cell Chemistries and Innovation
“I think there are changes in chemistry more often than most realize. Cell manufacturers are changing their chemistry every few months. And there are a lot of incremental changes that happen with electrochemistries themselves, many changes in electrolyte formulation that are always happening, so it’s much more of a continuous process and people notice the big step changes more, but the answer is that you always have to be dynamic in seeing what goes into the markets, so that you’re prepared to recycle it at the end-of-life. And that’s not something that’s going to change. So I think you just have to have the mindset of ‘This is not a static industry.’ We have to be working very closely with cell manufacturers.”
Panel: “Nevada’s Lithium Valley: Optimizing Sustainable Production”.
Chaired by Corinne Blanchard, Lithium / Cleantech Equity Analyst for Deutsche Bank.
Ryan Melsert Panel Excerpts:
Establishing Commercial Extraction Facilities for Lithium
“The federal government has pushed to move this forward, and a lot of the industry and its customers have demand-side pull to try to bring it to fruition. I think an interesting point is that for most of the projects under development in the US, very few are using what you would call legacy or conventional processes. These are all trying to extract lithium from first-of-kind claystone projects, from high temperature geothermal brines, from hardrock using much lower environmental impact technologies. So it’s not just copy and paste from the existing commercial facilities, you have the first-of-kind design and commercialization in combination with pursuing permitting, when there hasn’t been a successful lithium mine permit in the US in decades.”
Government Support and Next Steps
“There is tremendous government support now – I think it’s rather recent. There are different tailwinds that some people look at. Traditionally it’s really been more the economic side, we want lower-cost material to help grow domestic industries. But after a lot of the growing issues with China, and a lot of the supply chain disruptions through COVID, I think now it’s really just security of supply that is getting much more attractive. The federal government, at least, sees we don’t want to be building dozens of multi-billion dollar electric vehicle cell manufacturing plants and then be sourcing 100% of the metals for them from outside of the country. And another group is supporting more of the environmental impact side. Getting more electric vehicles on the road is important, but so is sourcing them from responsible operations. When OEMs will now look to purchase these products, in a lot of the world there just physically aren’t enough facilities that operate in a sustainable manner to source sustainable metals. So having those operations domestically gives you much greater visibility, and much greater access to what the actual impact is.
I think in the past there have been one or two of these tailwinds; to have all three of them at the same time has pushed it over the edge, and it is coming from both parties – this is one of the few issues they really do agree on. The infrastructure bill passed last fall really followed through on a lot of the funding mechanisms for that. I think the next step is to now align more on a streamlined process for getting these projects to commercialization much more quickly. Aligning permitting operations from the local, the state, the federal levels – more of a one stop shop, a streamlined method of pushing permits through the pipeline much more quickly is the next way the government can help facilitate this industry.”
Domestic Battery Manufacturing
“For battery manufacturing and cell manufacturing, there are a lot of plants under construction. Once the Tesla-Panasonic Gigafactory outside of Reno came online, there has been a lot of follow-on efforts. There are 11 or 12 very large facilities under construction; there are an equal number of electric vehicle manufacturing facilities under construction. Those are the latter-two pieces of the four-part chain. But it still is the refinement of the electrode materials and the manufacturing and refinement of the battery metals that are really not picking up. And that is what leaves the latter part of the industry very vulnerable. It’s out of access to domestic materials, to low-cost materials, to low environmental impact materials. So I don’t think there’s any issue with battery manufacturing ramping up domestically, or of vehicle manufacturing, but when you work in a straight line or more importantly a closed loop, the industry only has the throughput of the limiting factor, and right now that is the metals sourcing and the metals refinement.”
Mining in Nevada
“Nevada is still the largest state in the country as far as dollars of mining revenue per year. It does have a university infrastructure – University of Nevada at Reno is still one of the top mining universities. University of Utah right across the border. And I think the mentality of the state itself is pro-economic activities and supporting the mining industry. When we speak with state officials they say ‘We don’t want to go away from gold, silver, and uranium, but we do want to add these battery metals into the mixture. We as a state have the skillset to help bring these lithium products to market, more than any other state in the country.’