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Bringing batteries back to life: Research groups get federal funding for recycling projects

UC San Diego receives $10 million and Smartville Inc. of Carlsbad gets $6 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy

ExPost Lithium Battery Recycling
Battery researcher Zheng Chen at work at his lab at UC San Diego. (Photo courtesy of UC San Diego)

If the clean energy transition is going to happen, a massive amount of batteries will be needed.

Many will be manufactured, but just as many will be recycled to power the increasing number of electric vehicles and storage facilities needed to make the switch to sustainable energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently distributed $74 million from the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to advance the reuse of batteries. Of that, $16 million went to a pair of San Diego area research groups.

UC San Diego will receive $10 million to develop and scale up technology that recycles lithium-ion batteries. Smartville Inc. of Carlsbad has been awarded a $6 million grant to extend battery use for energy storage systems.

Zheng Chen, who leads the UC San Diego battery research team, said finding second lives for batteries is crucial.

“Today’s batteries, especially those used in electronics, are not actually recycled,” Chen said in an email to the Union-Tribune. “They might be collected but they are largely landfilled or not treated properly to recover their value and mitigate environmental impact.”

Lithium-ion batteries dominate the markets for portable electronic devices, electric vehicles and energy storage systems. But there’s a finite amount of lithium that can be extracted around the globe and its costs have increased 13-fold in the past two years, according to mining experts.

The UC San Diego project looks to recycle lithium-ion batteries through a process the lab calls Purification-Regeneration Integrated Materials Engineering, or PRIME. The novel technology takes critical cathode material from spent batteries as well as scraps from the manufacturing process and returns it to the production line.

The lab will ramp up the PRIME process to an industrial level while consuming just 20 percent of the energy used in conventional recycling methods.

“We are very confident that this project will be a success,” said Weikang Li, a postdoctoral researcher in Chen’s lab at UC San Diego’s Department of NanoEngineering. “Battery manufacturing will have a new closed-loop model with less energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission. Meanwhile, it will be more efficient and economic.”

The UC San Diego team includes researchers from Arizona State University, the University of Chicago, General Motors and the Argonne National Laboratory.

Smartville will employ proprietary technology to take second-life batteries from electric vehicles and apply them to energy storage systems used by electric grids such as the California Independent System Operator.

The company’s product, nicknamed MOAB, takes batteries from vehicles that are no longer on the road, integrates them into a single system and uses the re-purposed batteries at energy storage facilities.

An old battery may not seem to have much value. But even when it no longer meets the performance standards for an EV, a typical vehicle battery retains about 80 percent of its original capacity and can still be used effectively to store energy.

Storage has taken on a higher profile in recent years, especially in California, as the state increasingly relies on renewable energy resources. Solar production is abundant during the day but vanishes after the sun goes down or when clouds or smoke obscure the sky. Storing excess solar energy with batteries and then discharging those electrons to the electric grid at night can avoid using fossil fuels.

Smartville will install a 4,000 kilowatt-hour battery energy system in partnership with California power producer Wellhead Electric in the Central Valley town of San Joaquin. Another 500 kilowatt-hour system will be installed and operated in conjunction with the National Renewable Energy Lab’s testing lab in Colorado.

For perspective, the 4,000 kilowatt-hour system is enough to power 250 homes a day for four hours during evening hours when California’s grid is under the most stress.

“We have gotten to the point where we’ve validated our technology and we have working prototypes in the field,” said Smartville president Mike Ferry.

“But in order to really benefit taxpayers, ratepayers and meet the nation’s energy and climate goals, we need to move beyond prototypes and demonstrations to scalability and large-scale manufacturing. These grants allow us to accelerate our commercialization process must faster.”

MOAB has used old batteries from Nissan Leaf and Tesla electric vehicles. In the new project, Ferry said, Smartville will incorporate batteries from other manufacturers, although he said it’s too early to name them.

“Our goal is to have our first commercial product available by the first quarter of 2024 ... and by 2025 we really want to hit our stride and have manufacturing that’s being done at scale,” Ferry said.

In addition to Wellhead Electric and NREL, Smartville’s researchers will team up with Spiers New Technology, Utah State University, Colorado State University and Rhombus Energy Solutions.

UC San Diego has an equity stake in Smartville. Ferry also serves as director of Energy Storage & Systems at the university’s Center for Energy Research and Smartville’s CEO, Antoni Tong, is a research scientist at UC San Diego.

Orignally published: DEC. 7, 2022 5 AM PT

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