Ascend Elements ($922M for lithium battery recycling)

Ascend Elements (formerly known as Battery Resourcers) manufactures advanced battery materials using valuable elements reclaimed from spent lithium-ion batteries, upcycling those materials to contribute to a closed-loop process that reduces waste. Ascend Elements is also planning to locate its largest US facility in Hopkinsville with a $310 million phase 1 investment. Potential future phases would push investment to $1 billion to produce sustainable electric vehicle battery materials from recycled lithium-ion batteries.

Challenges: lithium battery recycling

Rapid growth of electric vehicles has a substantial effect on the demand for Li-ion batteries. By 2030, it is anticipated that there will be 140 million electric vehicles on the roads worldwide, while 11 million metric tons of Li-ion batteries will reach the end of their service lives. Currently, less than 5% of spent Li-ion batteries are recycled, and the majority of used batteries are disposed of in landfills.

As depicted in the diagram below, a typical lithium-ion battery consists of four essential components:

Li-ion battery components
Components of a typical Li-ion battery.

(i) Cathode: containing different formulations of lithium metal oxides and lithium iron phosphate depending on battery application and manufacturer, intercalated on a cathode backing foil/current collector (e.g. aluminum)—for example: LiNixMnyCozO2; LiNi0.8Co0.15Al0.05O2; LiCoO2; LiFePO4; LiMn2O4;

(ii) Anode: generally containing graphite intercalated on an anode backing foil/current collector (such as copper);

(iii) Electrolyte: for example, lithium hexafluorophosphate (LiPF6), lithium tetrafluoroborate (LiBF4), lithium perchlorate (LiClO4), or lithium fluoroalkylphosphates dissolved in an organic solvent (e.g., mixtures of alkyl carbonates, e.g. C1-C6 alkyl carbonates such as ethylene carbonate (generally required as part of the mixture for sufficient negative electrode/anode passivation), ethyl methyl carbonate, dimethyl carbonate, diethyl carbonate, propylene carbonate); and

(iv) Separator between the cathode and anode: for example, polymer or ceramic based.

It is estimated that over 11 million tonnes of spent battery packs have a residual value of approximately US$65 billion in metals and other components. In addition, lithium-ion battery recycling could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by offsetting/reducing the amount of raw material derived from primary sources (i.e. mining, refining) and preventing the landfilling of metals (e.g., heavy metals) and materials from spent lithium-ion batteries.

Thus, recovering materials from spent Li-ion batteries is highly desirable.

Pyrometallurgy is a method for extracting valuable metals from waste lithium ion batteries. The pyrogenic process burns the organic binder in the electrode material by high-temperature incineration at near 1500°C, and then obtains the metal compounds via flotation, precipitation and other similar techniques. These metal compounds recombine again to create a new active material. The high temperature approach therefore requires a substantial amount of energy, expense, and processing to separate and recombine the desirable materials.

The essential pyrometallurgical processes  are as follows:

  • Disassembly
  • Smelting
  • Mixed alloy and slag
  • Leaching
  • Impurity removal
  • Lithium extraction
  • Nickel extraction
  • Cobalt extraction
  • Precurser synthesis
  • Cathode production
  • Battery manufacturing

In comparison to pyrometallurgy, hydrometallurgy processing or chemical leaching is a less capital- and energy-intensive alternative. These processes for extracting and separating cathode metals can recover lithium, copper, and other transition metals and typically operate at temperatures below 100°C. The requirement for caustic reagents (such as hydrochloric, nitric, and sulfuric acids and hydrogen peroxide) is a drawback of hydrometallurgy techniques.

The essential hydrometallurgy processes are as follows:

  • Shredding
  • Leaching
  • Impurity removal
  • lithium extraction
  • Nickel extraction
  • Cobalt extraction
  • Precurser synthesis
  • Cathode production
  • Battery manufacturing

Current pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy techniques involve extracting the useful elements Co (cobalt), Ni (nickel), Mn (manganese), and Li (lithium) separately and then recombining them to produce cathode materials for new batteries. These processes lack efficiency.

Ascend Elements Technology

Ascend Elements’ method differs from conventional pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy in that it does not separate Ni, Mn, and Co out. Instead, uniform-phase precipitation is used as starting materials to directly synthesize the cathode materials directly from recycled components. The research revealed that the recycling process is practical and has high recovery efficiency, and has commercial value as well.

The essential processes of the Ascend Elements’s approach are as follows:

  • Shredding
  • Leaching
  • Impurity extraction and direct precursor synthesis
  • Cathode production
  • Battery manufacturing

Recovery and synthesis of LiNixMnyCozO2

The following diagram illustrates the recovery and synthesis of LiNixMnyCozO2 cathode material.

Ascend Elements Synthesized LiNixMnyCozO2
Ascend Elements Synthesized LiNixMnyCozO2.

The spent batteries are initially discharged, disassembled, and shredded. The sieved powder is leached by 4-5 M sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and 29-32% hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) at 70-80°C for about 2-3 hours.

After filtration, residual LiFeO4 and carbon can be separated by centrifugation. Other impurities are removed from the surface of the solution. The pH is adjusted with NaOH solution to a range of 3.0-7.0 in order to extract iron, copper and aluminum as Fe(OH)3, Cu(OH)2, and Al(OH)3, which have a lower solubility constant, while retaining Mn2+, Co2+, Ni2+ in the solution. Filtration is then used to separate Fe(OH)3, Cu(OH)2, and Al(OH)3.

The desirable materials are now retained in the solution. The solution is adjusted by adding raw materials CoSO4, NiSO4, and/or MnSO4 in order to achieve the predetermined target ratio of the desirable materials. Therefore, the mixed desirable materials (Co, Mn, Ni) do not need to be separately extracted as in conventional approaches.

To precipitate the desirable materials for the recycled charge materials, the PH is raised to approximately 11 with NaOH solution. NixMnyCoz(OH)2 or NixMnyCozO(OH) with different ratios of x, y, and z can be precipitated.

Na2CO3 is added in the solution to deposit Li2CO3.

The coprecipitated materials NixMnyCoz(OH)2 or NixMnyCozO(OH) and recovered Li2CO3 are mixed and ground in mortar. The mixture is sintered, and the reaction product is then ground into powder for subsequent distribution and reformation into new cells.

Recovery and synthesis of LiNixCoyAlzO2

The following diagram illustrates the recovery and synthesis of LiNixCoyAlzO2 cathode material.

Ascend Elements Synthesized LiNixCoyAlzO2
Ascend Elements Synthesized LiNixCoyAlzO2.

Similar to the recovery and synthesis of LiNixMnyCozO2 cathode material, the spent batteries are first discharged, disassembled, and shredded. The sieved powder is leached by sulfuric acid and hydrogen peroxide. To remove impurities by precipitating hydroxides and filtering, The pH of the solution is increased to 5-7. In this step, aluminum hydroxide can also be removed. Mn ions in the solution can be removed by adding proper chemicals.

The concentration of metallic ions of interest in solution will be measured and adjusted to the desired ratio by adding at least one of Ni, Co and aluminum salts. Prior to adding Al2(SO4)3 or Al(OH)3 or other aluminum salts, it may be preferable to increase the pH of the solution above 7. The recovered precursor materials are then precipitated with NaOH solution.

Na2CO3 is added in the solution to deposit Li2CO3.

The coprecipitated materials NixCoyAlz(OH)2 or NixCoyAlzO(OH) and recovered Li2CO3 are mixed and ground in mortar. The mixture is sintered, and the reaction product is then ground into powder for subsequent distribution and reformation into new cells.

Ascend Elements Products

Ascend Elements has a commercial-scale, lithium-ion battery recycling facility in Covington, Georgia. When the 154,000-square-foot facility is fully operational in August 2022, it will be North America’s largest battery recycling facility with capacity to process 30,000 metric tons of discarded lithium-ion batteries and scrap annually, returning battery grade cathode materials into the battery supply chain.

Ascend Elements leaching tanks
Ascend Elements leaching tanks (Source Ascend Elements).
Ascend-Elements factory
Ascend-Elements factory in Covington, Georgia (Source Ascend Elements).

Ascend Elements Funding

Ascend Elements has raised a total of $921.9M in funding over 11 rounds, including a Non-Equity Assistance, four Grant rounds, two Series B rounds, a Corporate round, a Debt Financing round, and a Series C round. Their latest funding was raised on Oct 26, 2022 from a Series C round.

The funding types of Ascend Elements.
The funding types of Ascend Elements.
The cumulative raised funding of Ascend Elements.
The cumulative raised funding of Ascend Elements.

Ascend Elements Investors

Ascend Elements is funded by 21 investors, including At One Ventures, InMotion Ventures, Doral Energy-Tech VenturesOrbia Ventures, TRUMPF Venture, SK ecoplant, TDK Ventures, MassVentures, National Science Foundation, Hitachi VenturesFoothill Ventures, Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, MassChallenge, US Department of Energy, Fifth Wall, Ethos Family Office, Mirae Asset CapitalGly Capital Management, Lithium Americas, Oman Investment Fund, and Shinhan GIB. Oman Investment Fund and TRUMPF Venture are the most recent investors.

The funding rounds by investors of Ascend Elements.
The funding rounds by investors of Ascend Elements.

Ascend Elements Founders

Diran Apelian, Eric Gratz, and Yan Wang are Co-Founders.

Ascend Elements CEO

Mike O’Kronley is CEO.

Ascend Elements Board Member and Advisor

Anil Achyuta is board advisor.

Eitan Dekel is board member.

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