Ultium Cells LLC, a joint venture between General Motors and LG Chem, has been steadily building up its battery cell manufacturing capacity in the U.S. since the venture was first announced in December 2019. But with each battery cell they produce, they’ll also produce waste — tricky-to-handle waste that also has too much inherent value to toss into a landfill.
Instead of throwing it away, Ultium is sending it to a recycler. The venture has executed an agreement with Canadian company Li-Cycle to recycle critical materials from the scrap produced from Ultium’s manufacturing processes from its Lordstown plant, starting later in 2021. The materials from the Lordstown location will be sent to Li-Cycle’s recycling location in Rochester, New York, to be processed and returned to the battery supply chain.
General Motors and LG Chem are clearly determined to scale their battery cell manufacturing. Around 5-10% of the output of a cell manufacturer is this excess scrap. Considering that the Lordstown facility will be capable of producing 35 gigawatt hours of capacity annually, it’s sure to produce a sizable amount of waste material. (For perspective, Tesla’s factory in Nevada has a 35 GW-hour capacity.)
Li-Cycle’s approach is different from more traditional recycling processes, co-founder Ajay Kochhar told TechCrunch. Traditional recycling efforts use a pyrometallurgical, or high-temperature, process. With this process, batteries go into a furnace and excess material, like plastics and the electrolyte, are burned off, leaving around a 50% recovery rate for the valuable raw materials.
Li-Cycle uses a low-temperature mechanical process that shreds — actually shreds, like a paper shredder — the battery materials in a submerged, proprietary solution. Doing it this way reduces the thermal risk of a fire and recovers up to 95% of the battery materials, Kochhar said. By not burning plastic, the company says it also avoids harmful emissions.
Li-Cycle claims that it stands out from competitors like Redwood Materials. However, the two companies have similarities, as all of Redwood’s batteries also end up in hydrometallurgy, a company spokesperson explained. Redwood also claims a recovery rate of 95-98%.