Hand disassembly won’t be ideal once the company starts taking in more materials, says Andy Hamilton, Redwood’s VP of manufacturing. Eventually, Redwood hopes to automate more of this sorting process, although building automated systems that can deal with the variety of batteries the company takes in will likely be a challenge.
After sorting and disassembly, the batteries that still hold charge can be loaded onto a conveyor belt and carried up into one of four massive chambers for a process called calcination, where batteries are cooked at high temperatures to discharge them and remove solvents.
The material is then crushed into powder before it enters the hydrometallurgical process to separate individual elements.
Despite recent technical progress, recycling won’t meet demand for battery materials anytime soon, he says Alyssa Kendall, an energy systems researcher at the University of California, Davis. Since demand is still rising exponentially, recycled batteries will at best account for about half the nickel and lithium supply by 2050.
However, as battery chemistries evolve, that percentage could change, as is already happening with cobalt. Batteries in EVs contain less cobalt today than they used to, and cell makers are continuously finding ways to use even less of the expensive metal. As a result, recycled cobalt could make up 85% of the supply needed by 2040, Kendall says.
Even if recycling can’t fully supplant mining, cutting the need for more mines could reduce the social and environmental burden of producing new batteries. Many metals for batteries are mined in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Mining in these regions is often associated with human rights violations, including forced and child labor, as well as significant air and water pollution, according to the International Energy Agency.
Waiting for the battery tsunami
Some in the battery recycling business argue that the industry won’t need much political support, since the materials in batteries will be valuable enough to justify recycling them. But recent policy moves in the US could give recyclers like Redwood a further boost.
Since Redwood’s manufacturing plant is in the US, the company could be eligible for production tax credits in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act. The IRA will also drive demand for raw materials from outfits like Redwood. For cars to qualify for $7,500 tax credits, automakers will need to source their materials and manufacture their batteries in the US or with free-trade partners.