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USABC awards $1.08M Li-ion battery recycling project to Worcester Polytechnic Institute

The United States Advanced Battery Consortium LLC (USABC), a collaborative organization of FCA US LLC, Ford Motor Company and General Motors, has awarded $1.08 million to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts for Phase II of a lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery recycling contract.

The contract award, which includes a 50% cost share, funds a 24-month project. Building on Phase I, this contract will enable WPI to demonstrate the ability of its process to recycle spent Li-ion batteries and produce new cathode materials to generate a higher nickel cathode powder.

The WPI team, led by Yan Wang, William Smith Foundation Dean’s Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, has developed a patented closed-loop recycling process in which the batteries are first shredded. After the shredded materials are separated, the cathode powders are dissolved. By adjusting the chemistry of the solution, new materials, in the desired ratios, can be precipitated out as precursor and used to make cathode material for new batteries.

Other materials recovered from the shredded batteries, including steel, graphite, and plastics, can also be recycled, thus benefiting the environment and improving the overall business model.

As part of the phase 1 USABC project, Wang took the process developed in his lab and proved that it can be scaled up to produce cathode materials that are equal in quality to those available commercially, and that those recovered materials can be used to make new vehicle batteries that are comparable to units sold by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for use in hybrid and electric vehicles.

The WPI recycling process was shown to be effective in recycling batteries that contain the most commonly used cathode materials at the time the research was completed to produce new cathode powders. But over the past few years, battery makers and car manufacturers have increasingly been moving towards higher nickel cathode formulations in efforts to reduce the quantity of cobalt contained in the cathode powders.

The switch to nickel is resulting in better batteries, as nickel-rich cathodes offer higher energy density (a greater ability to store energy) than cobalt-rich cathodes. But, Wang noted, producing nickel-rich cathodes is a more demanding process that requires additional steps not required for cobalt-rich cathodes.

With the new USABC award, Wang and his team will seek to demonstrate their ability to produce high-quality nickel-rich cathode powders from materials recovered from recycled batteries, and that those cathode powders can be incorporated into batteries with electrochemical performance on par with OEM control units made with commercial powder. The team will also explore how different anode materials, including lithium, silicon, and titanium dioxide, as well as adhesives used in battery manufacture, affect the recycling process.

I am quite confident that we can meet these targets. In the first phase of our USABC project we gained fundamental knowledge about how to control our process to produce cathode particles with the desired properties. While the conditions for forming cathode powders will be different with the high-nickel materials, our process is quite flexible and I believe it can be adapted to the new formulations.

—Yan Wang

As in the original USABC-funded project, the work of making and testing new automotive batteries using the high-nickel cathode powders produced by Wang’s team will be subcontracted to A123 Systems and Battery Resourcers, a company that has licensed WPI’s patented Li-ion battery recycling process.

USABC is a subsidiary of the United States Council for Automotive Research LLC (USCAR). Enabled by a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), USABC’s mission is to develop electrochemical energy storage technologies that support commercialization of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, electric and fuel cell vehicles. In support of its mission, USABC has developed mid- and long-term goals to guide its projects and measure its progress.



If USABC failed to develop higher performance batteries, maybe it could recycle existing used batteries?

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