WPI’s patented process can recycle the most widely used power source for electronics, and electric and hybrid vehicles, using recovered materials to produce nickel-rich cathodes for commercial-grade automotive batteries
Lithium-ion batteries power electronics and electric vehicles, but very few of these ubiquitous energy storage devices are ever recycled due to challenges related to their chemistry. In this feature story in the WPI Journal, learn about Battery Resourcers, a new company based on research by Yan Wang. This start-up, which may be the first to bring a viable recycling technology to market, began with a friendship and a hunch.
As part of the phase 1 USABC project, Wang took the process developed in his lab and proved that it can be scaled up to produce cathode materials that are equal in quality to those available commercially, and that those recovered materials can be used to make new vehicle batteries that are comparable to units sold by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for use in hybrid and electric vehicles.
The WPI recycling process was shown to be effective in recycling batteries that contain the most commonly used cathode materials at the time the research was completed to produce new cathode powders. But over the past few years, battery makers and car manufacturers have increasingly been moving towards higher nickel cathode formulations in efforts to reduce the quantity of cobalt contained in the cathode powders.
The switch to nickel is resulting in better batteries, as nickel-rich cathodes offer higher energy density (a greater ability to store energy) than cobalt-rich cathodes. But, Wang noted, producing nickel-rich cathodes is a more demanding process that requires additional steps not required for cobalt-rich cathodes. With the new USABC award, Wang and his team will seek to demonstrate their ability to produce high-quality nickel-rich cathode powders from materials recovered from recycled batteries, and that those cathode powders can be incorporated into batteries with electrochemical performance on par with OEM control units made with commercial powder. The team will also explore how different anode materials, including lithium, silicon, and titanium dioxide, as well as adhesives used in battery manufacture, affect the recycling process.
A Conversation with Eric Gratz, CEO of Battery Resourcers
“I am quite confident that we can meet these targets,” Wang said. “In the first phase of our USABC project we gained fundamental knowledge about how to control our process to produce cathode particles with the desired properties. While the conditions for forming cathode powders will be different with the high-nickel materials, our process is quite flexible and I believe it can be adapted to the new formulations.”
As in the original USABC-funded project, the work of making and testing new automotive batteries using the high-nickel cathode powders produced by Wang’s team will be subcontracted to A123 Systems and Battery Resourcers, a company that has licensed WPI’s patented Li-ion battery recycling process.
“WPI is the first and only university to be granted an award from the USABC,” Wang noted. “The consortium’s funding usually goes to industry, because the focus is always on innovations that can be commercialized and used by the automotive industry. The USABC and the OEMs have been very helpful to us as we have worked to perfect and commercialize our process, because they see this as a viable solution to their growing end-of-life battery problem.”
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