Mike O’Kronley, Ascend’s CEO, said his company will accept a range of materials from SK, including plastic and metal scrap, as well as battery cells and modules that do not meet performance standards. Ascend says its process allows it to recover around 98% of all battery materials to return to the supply chain.
Though his company will recycle as much material as possible, O’Kronley said, its focus will be on salvaging high-value metals like cobalt, lithium and nickel.
“The nice thing about the materials in these lithium-ion batteries is that they’re infinitely recyclable,” O’Kronley said. “We can continue to recycle these batteries over and over again.”
Ascend, formerly known as Battery Resourcers, is currently developing its Covington facility in an existing industrial building. O’Kronley said the plant has begun accepting some scrap material, but won’t begin recycling until May. When the Ascend plant is fully operational, the company says it will be the largest battery recycling facility in North America, capable of processing 30,000 metric tons of material each year.
Right now, scraps from the production of EV batteries are Ascend’s main recycling feedstock. Since electric vehicles are relatively new and batteries in many models can last more than a decade, O’Kronley said that end-of-life batteries make up a small share of what the company recycles. But as vehicles age, he said, he expects the number of used batteries to grow significantly.
Many scientists view the transition to EVs as key to limiting global warming. Over the course of their lifetimes, EVs have a much smaller environmental footprint than comparable gas-powered vehicles, experts say.
However, most EV batteries rely on a few scarce and valuable metals, and the extraction of these elements has been linked to significant pollution and human rights concerns. The production of the vehicle’s massive batteries — as well as the question of what to do with exhausted battery cells — also remains an environmental concern as more EVs hit the road.
The International Energy Agency projected last year that, under existing policies, EVs could grow from just 11 million vehicles globally in 2020 to 145 million by 2030, increasing by nearly 30% annually the rest of this decade.
If those trends hold, experts say it is critical to expand battery recycling efforts.
“Recycling is better for the environment than it is to mine and refine these materials,” said Jeffrey Spangenberger, the director of the ReCell center, a consortium of laboratories that works to advance recycling technologies.
O’Kronley did not say whether his company would work with the carmaker Rivian, which is building a $5 billion plant just down the road from Ascend’s Covington plant.