Benjamin Reynaga used power tools to hack his way into a beat-up hybrid Honda Fit at an auto dismantling plant at the edge of the Mojave Desert until he reached the most important part of the car: its lithium-ion battery.
The vehicle itself was set to be crushed, but the battery would be treated with care. It would be disassembled nearby and then sent to Nevada, where another company, Redwood Materials, would recover some of the valuable metals inside.
The plant where Reynaga works, in Adelanto, California, is at the front lines of what auto industry experts, environmentalists and the Biden administration believe could be an important part of a global shift to electric vehicles: recycling and reusing metals like cobalt, lithium and nickel. If batteries past their prime supply the ingredients for new ones, electric cars, trucks and vans would become more affordable and environmentally sustainable.
“We’re just getting ready,” said Nick Castillo, who manages the plant for LKQ Corp. The facility mostly dismantles gasoline vehicles but is preparing to take apart more hybrid and electric vehicles. “We know it’s eventually going to take over. It’s going to be the future.”
Sales of electric cars and trucks are taking off, and the auto and battery industries are investing billions of dollars to upgrade and build factories. These cars could help address climate change, but batteries pose their own problems. Raw materials can be hard to mine, are often found in countries with poor human rights records and require processing that leaves behind noxious waste.
Fortunately, those battery ingredients are also highly reusable. And now a race is on to collect and recycle used lithium-ion batteries. Venture capitalists, automakers and energy companies are pouring money into dozens of startup recycling companies in North America and Europe.
“We’re weaning our entire society off of fossil and carbon-intensive fuels; we can’t underestimate the scale of that challenge,” said Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham in England, who studies battery recycling. “The demand is going to be so enormous.”
But for all the optimism, this new business faces a daunting challenge: Few batteries will be available to recycle for a decade or more. Tesla, which dominates the electric vehicle business, began selling cars in 2008 and until 2017 sold fewer than 100,000 cars a year. There are other sources to recycle today, including hybrids and consumer electronics, but the supply is limited and collection can be challenging.
That has left recycling companies in a difficult position. They need to invest in factories, machinery and workers or risk losing ground to competitors. But if they invest too quickly, they could run out of money before lots of aging batteries arrive at their loading docks.
“You have people that are just burning through money, because you don’t have the feedstock to be able to make the material to sell,” said Eric Frederickson, the managing director of operations for Call2Recycle, a nonprofit program that helps recyclers find old batteries.
The companies also have to figure out how to find, collect and dismantle batteries. They have to work with many dismantlers, scrap yards and nonprofit groups. And because batteries are prone to fires and packaged and built differently from model to model, taking them apart can be complicated and dangerous.
Among companies recycling batteries, Redwood stands out. The company was founded by JB Straubel, a former top Tesla executive, and has raised more than $1 billion from investors, it said. Redwood sees itself primarily as a producer of battery materials – made from recovered or mined metals – and has established recycling partnerships with Ford Motor, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. Redwood also recycles scrap from a battery plant run by Panasonic and Tesla, near Reno, Nevada.
On a flat, dusty tract of land near that plant, Redwood is building out a 175-acre campus. There, the company recovers metal from old batteries and produces materials for new ones. Redwood announced last week that it would spend at least $3.5 billion on another campus in South Carolina, in a region of the country that is fast becoming a hub for battery and electric vehicle production.
Other businesses are focused solely on recycling. Li-Cycle, a Canadian company founded in 2016 by two former engineering consultants – Ajay Kochhar and Tim Johnston – is building several plants.
At collection centers in Alabama, Arizona, New York and Ontario, the company breaks down batteries and manufacturing scrap. In its plant in Rochester, New York, a conveyor belt ferries materials up one story before dropping them into a vat where they are shredded while submerged in a proprietary chemical solution to prevent fires.
The resulting pieces are separated, and Li-Cycle then harvests a granular substance, known as black mass, which is processed into its component metals elsewhere. But Li-Cycle plans a total capital investment of about $485 million to build a facility, also in Rochester, to turn the substance into battery-grade lithium, cobalt and nickel.
Battery recycling is still relatively new in North America, but more mature companies abroad could provide a hint of what’s to come. In China, for example, there are many recyclers but a shortage of material.
“They have too much capacity and too few batteries to recycle,” said Hans Eric Melin, who founded Circular Energy Storage, a consulting firm that specializes in the market for old lithium-ion batteries. “I think that’s exactly the situation that we will face in both Europe and North America.”
It could take many years for recycling to become a thriving industry in the United States. Relatively few electric vehicles are on the road and most are new. Smartphones, laptops and other electronics also contain lithium-ion batteries, but they are difficult to collect and there are not enough to meet the growing needs of the auto industry.
But lawmakers and environmental groups want recycling to take off quickly to cut carbon emissions, protect the nation from an overreliance on foreign producers and promote the safe disposal of batteries.
The Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Joe Biden over the summer, for example, requires a growing share of a battery’s valuable minerals to be sourced domestically or from a trade ally before vehicles qualify for tax credits. And the European Union appears close to requiring a minimum amount of recycled content in all electric vehicle batteries.
After years of losing ground to China, U.S. and European executives and lawmakers are optimistic that battery recycling can quickly help establish a domestic battery industry. But they may be in for a rude awakening, said Melin, the consultant.
Electric vehicle batteries can last 15 to 20 years. Even then, many batteries will find second lives – to store wind and solar energy for use when it’s not windy or sunny, for example – before they are recycled.
“There won’t be a lot of material to recycle for a long time,” Melin said. “And that is obviously a positive thing because the main reason is that the batteries are in the cars.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.