Lead to lithium, Aqua Metals recycling
Nickel recovery from batteries offers supply chain solution Metal Tech News - May 5, 2022
Last updated 5/5/2022 at 10:44am
A leading innovator in metals recycling, Aqua Metals Inc. has achieved a new milestone in proving its recycling technology by plating high-purity nickel metal, one atom at a time, from black mass recovered from a variety of lithium-ion batteries.
"The only Li-battery recycling method commercially in use today is smelting, which produces an alloy of the metals that needs multiple pyrometallurgical steps of processing to achieve the product we produce right out of our system," said Aqua Metals Vice President of Commercial David Regan. "These additional steps add emissions and cost, which is why we believe our process may be more cost-effective and sustainable than smelting or other recycling methods, and even mining."
The company's proprietary AquaRefining is a water-based recycling technology that can recover metals at room temperature and is fundamentally non-polluting. It utilizes an electroplating process that essentially builds metal one atom at a time to produce some of the purest recovered metals in the world, according to Aqua Metals.
The company originally developed to recycle lead from the batteries that are the mainstay of internal combustion engine vehicles. Due to the ongoing renewable energy revolution requiring vast amounts of lithium, cobalt, graphite, and manganese for the batteries powering electric vehicles, Aqua quickly realized the potential to recover these precious elements from recycled lithium-ion batteries.
Already proven with its Aqualyzer – which produces 99.996% lead, some of the purist on Earth, from recycled lead-acid batteries – it was a small step to apply its expertise toward lithium-ion recycling, which the company believes has the lowest environmental footprint of any technology under development.
In addition to lead and lithium batteries, Aqua Metals has also produced high-purity lithium hydroxide – used to make soaps for thickeners in lubricating greases – as well as copper, which is fairly self-explanatory in its uses and importance to electricity.
"It is an environmental and geopolitical reality that the United States needs to transition to electrified transportation supported with renewable energy while also building a strong domestic battery supply chain through environmentally responsible recycling," said Aqua Metals' President and CEO Steve Cotton. "Our sustainable recycling process has already proven its ability to extract high-quality lithium, copper, and now nickel from lithium-ion black mass, and we intend to build on these early successes to help deliver on the President's vision of a robust and environmentally responsible domestic industrial base to meet the requirements of the clean energy economy."
Adding to its portfolio by reclaiming nickel, with early test production of nickel sulfate showing promising results, makes the company a viable solution to a future circular economy.
"Beyond the potential economic and environmental advantages of AquaRefining, we feel our ability to produce high purity metals can be a big differentiator for us," said Ben Taecker, chief operations and engineering officer at Aqua Metals. "Plating such a high-quality nickel enables us to go directly to the production for battery precursor material without having to implement any additional refining steps."
According to Stockhead, nickel demand for lithium-ion batteries could grow up to 567% by 2025, compared to 2019 levels. The exponential growth in demand for nickel due to the global expansion of EVs has resulted in a correlating and unprecedented surge in nickel prices.
"This streamlines the process, adding economic and environmental value," added Taecker. "Our production of high purity nickel sulfate from the nickel we plated supports this. We remain on track for implementing a fully operational pilot later this year."