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Electric Vehicles and the Auto Recycling Revolution: Answering the Big Questions on the IRA’s First Anniversary

David Regan, Vice President of Commercial at US-based Aqua Metals, a leader in the quest for a cleaner and more efficient battery metal recycling processes, examines the EV recycling revolution, assesses the impact of the Inflation Reduction Act on the industry, and underscores the need for auto recyclers to recognize and seize opportunities amidst the challenges.

 

Electric Vehicles and the Auto Recycling Revolution: Answering the Big Questions on the IRA's First Anniversary p
David Regan

A little over a year ago, the United States cemented its commitment to a cleaner future with the unveiling of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) – a transformative investment in the industries and resources that will power a low-carbon economy.

As we mark its first anniversary, the IRA’s ambition is palpable not just in the energy sector, but it’s echoing through the supply chains of many industries, including auto recycling facilities and dismantling operations worldwide.

At its core, the IRA promotes a transition to electrification – from cars and trucks to heat pumps and cooktops – powering our economy with increasingly carbon-free electricity. In particular, the once-in-a-generation investment in electric vehicles (EV) and lithium batteries has accelerated the global race to dominate these emerging industries, which are foundational to clean energy.

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Transformative Investments in Clean Energy

Ultimately, the wide-ranging sectors targeted by the IRA is not just a domestic call to action but a gauntlet thrown at the feet of nations worldwide – the US aims to reclaim leadership in clean energy technologies and is investing unprecedented amounts to build these industries domestically.

This massive public investment is drawing significant private capital, as well. In the U.S., companies have announced or moved forward with projects in 44 states since the IRA was passed, accounting for more than 170,600 new clean energy jobs and $278 billion in new investments.

In response to the IRA, many multinational companies are reexamining their plans through the lens of capitalizing on these incentives and finding themselves compelled to invest in North America’s growing battery supply chain over other regions. As momentum builds on America shores, other countries are now at their own crossroads, reckoning with energy and sustainability policies against the backdrop of the IRA and its wide-ranging impacts on the global economy.

Meeting the Mineral Needs of the Clean Energy Economy

With the global switch to clean energy and EVs underway, everyone has seen inquisitive headlines in the news asking some version of the question, “Where will all these critical battery metals come from?”.

First, for some context, the World Bank estimates that meeting the targets set out in the Paris Agreement will require 3.5 billion tons of minerals in the next three decades (including the full array of clean energy technologies, not just EVs and batteries).

That sounds like a lot of minerals, and it is — but in 2020 alone, we extracted nearly eight billion tons of coal and four billion tons of crude oil to keep the economy chugging along for a single year.

And perhaps most importantly, once these metals and critical minerals are extracted and refined, they are not burnt in a power plant or a car, and instead can be reused, repurposed, and ultimately recycled near infinitely.

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From Trash to Treasure: EV Battery Recycling

EV batteries are treasure troves. They house valuable metals like lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese – elements critical for the clean energy economy. So the question is – how do we extract these essential elements efficiently and sustainably?

The two most popular methods being commercialized, pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, have their pitfalls.

Pyrometallurgy, which essentially involves incinerating spent batteries, also inadvertently incinerates valuable components like lithium and manganese. Even though it is labeled as recycling, the immense energy demands and low yields from this process, coupled with the significant emissions from fossil fuels, hardly align with the ideas of sustainability and circularity.

Hydrometallurgy, while eliminating the pollution from furnaces, leans heavily on a vast assortment of chemical reactions and acids to dissolve and separate metals. These hazardous chemicals are loaded with embedded emissions, and the chemical reactions create substantial waste material as a byproduct that inevitably finds its way to our already overburdened landfills – or worse, dumped directly into the ocean, as is already common in the industry.

Whether with fire or with chemicals, in both cases, the combined tonnage of emissions, waste, and lost material from these recycling methods far exceeds the amount of valuable metals recovered.

Electrify Everything – Including Battery Recycling

At Aqua Metals, this is the challenge we set out to solve – how can we replace polluting furnaces and trainloads of chemicals with a battery recycling process powered by electricity?

We are pioneering a new method of lithium battery recycling that we call AquaRefining. Instead of high temperatures or chemical reactions, we separate and reclaim critical metals from spent batteries using an innovative process similar to electroplating – extracting valuable metals one-by-one using electric current.

This means no direct emissions from burning materials in a fossil-furnace and no chemical byproducts are created that must be sent to a landfill. And, since this novel process uses electricity as the primary catalyst, there is a clear pathway to net-zero AquaRefining powered by renewable electricity.

Integrating Auto Recyclers in the Clean Energy Supply Chain

It’s clear that the IRA’s goals hinge not just on manufacturing new products but also on ensuring old ones don’t become environmental liabilities. Auto recyclers sit at this crucial juncture. By efficiently recycling EV batteries, recyclers can feed the very supply chain the IRA seeks to bolster.

EVs get produced, they serve their lifespan, and then, instead of languishing in scrapyards, their batteries get a renewed life – their metals reforged for the next generation of products.

And most importantly, this can be done without creating a new climate catastrophe. Auto recyclers are an indispensable link in the clean energy economy, ensuring sustainability doesn’t end when a product reaches its end-of-life.

As the IRA embarks on its second year and global economies reflect on its ripple effects, auto recyclers must see the opportunities amid the challenges. Electric vehicles are here to stay, and with them, a host of recycling needs.

To find out more about Aqua Metals, please visit https://www.aquametals.com

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