There’s a third option for lithium-ion batteries – ‘upcycling’

As we move more and more towards driving electric vehicles and away from gas-driven cars and trucks, I have noticed more and more stories about lithium – both ‘mined’ lithium, and ‘green lithium’. And while I am not any kind of expert on EVs or lithium batteries, it did strike me that the stories headed in two different directions – one, that we would need to create more lithium mines, or even recycle the ore from existing mines, or two, that different kinds of batteries could be developed that would start to replace lithium.

But a third possibility apparently exists – that someone would ‘upcycle’ lithium-ion batteries by recovering the key elements and turn them into a new product that works even better than the old one. This is exciting, for a whole variety of reasons.

  • It creates the possibility that the supply chain for lithium-ion batteries can be shortened and made more local (there are going to be factories in the southern US and in Europe.)
  • It means companies will not need to mine these rare minerals in parts of the world where such mining helps create conflict (and increasingly around the world, people seem less keen to have lithium mines in their backyard. Serbia, for example, just cancelled licenses for a lithium mine proposed by Rio Tinto following weeks of public protests about the environmental impacts on the land and water.) 
  • The process is cleaner, more energy-efficient, and more sustainable.
  • And it rewards a decade’s work by dedicated US researchers. Professor Yan Wang, of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, worked for a decade with postdoctoral student Eric Gratz to investigate an entirely new process.

Ascend Elements, which is based in Massachusetts and used to be known as Battery Resourcers, makes “advanced battery materials using valuable elements reclaimed from discarded lithium-ion batteries”. Their patented Hydro-to-Cathode process leaches out impurities from shredded battery materials, “keeping the valuable metals in solution and eliminating multiple steps in the recycling flow.” They are “creating the future of sustainable battery manufacturing and recycling, today,” they say.

The traditional recycling process involves many steps and uses a lot of energy. “Our Hydro-to-Cathode process is more efficient and more sustainable while it returns higher-level materials to the supply chain. Using a life cycle assessment methodology from Argonne National Labs, our process demonstrated significant reductions in all environmental impact categories, when compared with traditional methods.”

WBUR has a great story that provides the context for why this upcycling is such an important breakthrough:

Ascend Elements claims it can turn spent lithium-ion batteries into ones that are better than new — longer-lasting, faster-charging and less-polluting. The recycled energy cells could also provide the U.S. with an added measure of energy independence.

Lithium-ion batteries are in the vast majority of electric cars and trucks. Lithium is what scientists call “energy dense,” packing a powerful punch relative to its size and weight. But the battery name is misleading.

“Ironically, lithium is not the most important material in a lithium-ion battery,” says Jeffrey Spangenberger, director of Argonne National Laboratory’s ReCell Center, which works to advance battery-recycling technologies.

Nickel, graphite, manganese and cobalt are also important, Spangenberger says, especially cobalt, the most expensive material in EV batteries. It’s one reason the batteries are the costliest part of an electric vehicle.

Those metals are mostly mined overseas. Australia and South America have vast lithium deposits, but the extraction process uses billions of gallons of water a year and can devastate the environment. The largest reserves of cobalt are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where miners have faced working conditions that violate human rights.

The mined minerals are largely processed in China and then shipped to the rapidly growing number of factories around the world that produce EV batteries.

That long and uncertain supply chain is also a growing strategic concern for the U.S.  So, reclaiming the valuable metals in spent EV batteries is becoming a national priority.

“Without [battery] recycling, electric vehicles are going to be a challenge to get off the ground,” says Spangenberger. Argonne’s ReCell Center, part of the Department of Energy, is collaborating with academic institutions and companies to find new ways to reclaim and reuse the valuable battery metals.”


Ascend Elements website.

Mass. startup transforms old electric car batteries into better-than-new ones. WBUR, Jan. 25, 2022.

Battery Resourcers raises $70M to grow closed-loop battery supply chain. TechCrunch, Sep. 21, 2021.

Thanks to Kindel Media from Pexels for the featured image.

An Update:

South America’s ‘lithium fields’ reveal the dark side of our electric future. Nature, Feb. 1, 2022

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