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Could a New Battery Recycling Technology Push Smelting Out?

Could a New Battery Recycling Technology Push Smelting Out?

The new process is positioned as a cheaper, cleaner alternative to smelting.

Technology company Aqua Metals launched a lead-acid battery recycling plant in McCarran, Nev. today that the Alameda, Calif.-based company says will revolutionize how lead from batteries is processed. The company says its proprietary technology, AquaRefining, is a cheaper, cleaner alternative to its long-standing forerunner, smelting. It will be available to recyclers as well as battery manufacturers who will have two options: purchasing the commodity, or buying into the technology to launch their own plants.

At an average cost of $2,000 per ton the past couple of years, lead has not been affordable to many who would otherwise buy the commodity. And recycling their own lead has been an option only for “the big guys,” according to Steve Cotton, Aqua Metals’ chief commercial officer. He believes AquaRefining will lessen the economic hurdle—cutting costs in areas from processing to transportation—while making battery recycling sustainable.

The technology has the industry’s and other stakeholders’ attention

Aqua Metals has raised a cumulative $67 million through private and strategic investors, an initial public offering (IPO) and a USDA loan guarantee. Interstate Batteries has the largest independent battery distribution system in the U.S. and is a major partner, tossing $10 million into the ring.

Michael Cahill, founder of investment firm Crispin Capital Management, recently told Batteries International this past winter, “We could see [Aqua Metals] being worth $1 billion in the not-so-distant future.”

Sparing the environment

This new recovery method has been shown to generate less air emissions than smelting, which produces greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Smelting emits sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. And it churns out toxins like arsenic, lead, mercury and carbon dioxide, which are emitted into the air and leach into soil and water.

“Aquarefining eliminates metals and dust and it reduces greenhouse gases and sulfur dioxide. For every 30,000 tons of recycled lead, we will emit 0.07 tons of sulfur dioxide versus the average smelter’s 97 tons,” says Cotton.

Unlike with smelting, which requires high temperatures (1,650 degrees centigrade), the new technology processes lead at room temperature. Lead components are dissolved in a liquid electrolyte material. And the reborn commodity is then electrolyzed.

Interstate Batteries President and CEO Scott Miller is optimistic that the company they have joined forces with is on to something. “Lead is one of the most recycled materials because it can be truly purified to its original form,” he says. “A lead battery is made from 95 percent recycled lead. That’s pretty remarkable, and is part of why lead recycling is so important for our industry, other industries and the public in general.”

Miller adds that by taking a minority share in Aqua Metals, Interstate will “strengthen its position in the industry, strengthen the brand even further, and put us in great standing with our customers as good corporate citizens.”

The economics

Aqua Metals also says its process will cut transportation costs since operations can be co-located with battery manufacturers and distributors whereas the alternative is shipping the wasted material to smelters. The technology eliminates the need to run energy-guzzling glass furnaces. Environmental permitting will be less involved and cheaper. And, says Cotton, you can scale down manufacturing to meet demand as it is not done via batch processing.

AquaRefining is not the first attempt at finding an alternative to smelting.

But early processes, called electroplating or electrorefining, also involved high temperatures and more exposure to hazardous materials than this new method.

“The [electroplating] process was more labor intensive, tedious, and exposed laborers to potentially dangerous materials, says Cotton.

“But we create new lead with a continuous plating process that is more automatic and allows materials to be more easily managed. And it’s overall cleaner.”

AquaRefinery will initially be processing 80 tons of lead per day, at capacity, and plans to double production to 160 tons of lead per day by 2018.

A lofty goal

The company’s goal is to see that within 10 years the new technology is the primary method for recycling lead-acid batteries.

“If you can find a way to make a commodity cheaper with significant positive environmental impact you can’t afford to do it any other way,” says Cotton. 

TAGS: Financials
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