US government launches US$335 million battery recycling programme

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The US government Department of Energy (DOE) has begun implementation of a US$335 million programme to support battery recycling.

The DOE has issued a Request for Information (RFI) seeking input to help guide the programme, which aims to foster and support battery recycling capabilities within the US.

It has arisen due to the importance of batteries in grid storage and for transportation. It follows a similar RFI being issued earlier this month by the department for research and development (R&D) into so-called Critical Materials, which included ingredients for batteries.    

Much conversation around the US clean energy sector and government support has rightly focused on the more recent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and what that will do to unlock US$369 billion total investment into climate change mitigation and energy security.

However, the recycling and Critical Materials R&D programmes are being funded with money set aside through the earlier Bipartisan Infrastructure Law aka the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The US$1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in November 2021.

As noted at the time by the national Energy Storage Association (ESA) – now part of the American Clean Power Association – trade group, this included US$3 billion for various aspects of the battery manufacturing value chain, including recycling as well as materials processing.

There is also other support for energy storage enabled by the law, including US$500 million for energy storage demonstration projects and US$14 billion towards energy resiliency programmes for communities and another US$3 billion for technologies that add flexibility to the grid. Energy storage is a likely component of efforts in both those two latter areas.

“Battery recycling doesn’t just remove harmful waste from our environment; it also strengthens domestic manufacturing by placing used materials back into the supply chain,” US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said yesterday.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is making big investments in our clean energy and transportation future and securing our supply chain here at home will allow more Americans to benefit from the many clean technologies powered by lithium batteries.”

The law also puts US$60 million funding towards supporting second life applications for electric vehicle (EV) batteries, with stationary battery energy storage systems (BESS) often considered a suitable application for second life.

Recycling represents opportunities on several levels

Battery recycling is already taking off in the US through North American companies like Li-Cycle, Ascend Elements and Redwood Materials. The CEO of the latter, JB Straubel, told Granholm in a 2021 online event that recovery and recycling can result in very high utilisation of materials, sometimes dozens of times from one application to the next. In April, Straubel said before a Senate committee that Redwood is already processing up to 6GWh of end-of-life lithium batteries for recycling every year.

That might be a small trickle compared to what’s expected as more and more EVs come offline towards the end of this decade and although BESS will likely represent a much smaller proportion of total battery waste, it will be in a comparable situation as earlier Li-ion installations from the mid-2010s start reaching their end of life about 15 to 20 years after deployment.

Li-Cycle chief commercial officer Kunal Phalpher told this site a while ago that expert data indicates there will be raw materials shortages that hamper efforts to switch to renewable energy and electric transport by mid-2020s.

“We have to make more materials available in two ways. One is more out of the ground, which we need because if we’re trying to electrify the world, there’s not enough material out of the ground yet to make that happen,” Phalpher said.

“But then on the back end, [we have to] make sure that we’re recirculating those and making sure that there’s a sustainable path for materials that are either scrapped from production or are reaching end of life, so we get those back into the supply chain.”

Furthermore, most Critical Materials aren’t sourced from the ground or processed in the US today, so one way to localise materials supply is through the secondary market or recycling supply chain, which also has benefits from a sustainability perspective. Recycled materials, already prepared once to be suitable for use in batteries, can actually be higher quality resources than materials taken from the ground, which might require more refining and processing to get to battery grade quality, Phalpher said.

What’s interesting for Li-Cycle about BESS from a business perspective is that some utility-scale projects will be several megawatt-hours each, and bigger. That means projects coming to end-of-life with 200 or 300 tonnes of batteries each.

“Whereas if we work with the automotive OEMs right now, just on their day-to-day business, in replacements, you get a pack here, a pack there, unless there’s some broader problem or recall. So, it’s a bit different, rather than the linear, steady sort of growth [for EVs] or for consumer electronics, which are kind of always going through the cycle.”

Comments will be accepted by the DOE until 5pm Eastern Time on 14 October 2022 and the RFI can be found here on the department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy website.

Feedback is being sought on how federal investments can accelerate the recycling value chain from collection and transport to processing and recycling. Input on second life applications will also be welcomed, as will suggestions on how to support US workers in the industry, including how to align with the Biden-Harris administration’s objectives of enabling a just and equitable energy transition.

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