Reno, Nevada-based Aqua Metals Inc. says it is producing plates of high-purity nickel “one atom at a time, from ‘black mass’ created from a variety of lithium-ion batteries.”
The company’s refinery technology, initially directed at the lead-acid battery market, is now being modified and tested to extract and purify metals from lithium-ion batteries and the black mass created when such batteries are shredded and partially sorted.
“This achievement supports the expectation that Aqua Metals’ Li AquaRefining potentially has strong economic and environmental advantages over other lithium-ion recycling processes in use or under development,” states the company.
Aqua Metals says its early test production of nickel sulfate, a compound often used in battery precursor material, has shown “promising results.”
“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,” says David Regan, a vice president of with Aqua Metals. “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.”
Aqua Metals cites a study by Australia-based Stockhead forecasting that nickel demand for lithium-ion batteries could grow by 567 percent by 2025, compared with 2019 levels. “The exponential growth in demand for nickel due to the global expansion of electric vehicles has resulted in a correlating and unprecedented surge in nickel prices,” states Aqua Metals.
Tightness in the nickel market has been “greatly exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, as Russia is one of the world’s largest suppliers of the metal,” says the company.
“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,” says Steve Cotton, Aqua Metals’ president and CEO. “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.”
To date, Aqua Metals says it also has produced high-purity lithium hydroxide and copper from lithium-ion battery black mass at its Innovation Center in the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center in Nevada. Through the development of AquaRefining for lead batteries, Aqua Metals calls itself “the only company that has experience building a commercial clean metals recycling technology.”