Are Recycled Battery Metals as Effective as Those Newly Mined?
Many aspects of modern life that we all have become accustomed to depend on a steady supply of energy. Similar to how the concept of Moore’s Law has led to thinking that we can almost always expect more computing power, it’s possible that we will see this type of expectation for the future of energy storage.
The critical focus in 2022 along this line is: where will we source all of the metals?
Energy Storage May Progress on Multiple Paths
Think of three different possible use cases:
1. A high-performance electric vehicle. Here, the primary focus would be on energy density and range, with an assumption of being able to charge on a somewhat regularly scheduled cycle—i.e., while the owner sleeps at night. The battery can be large and somewhat heavy, but these specifications would depend largely on other details about the specific vehicle. Size and weight certainly wouldn’t be unlimited.
2. Stabilizing the supply of an electric grid powered by intermittent sources. The world sees the benefit of zero-emission power sources like wind and solar, but we know that the wind isn’t always constant, and the sun isn’t always shining. Extremely large batteries that can effectively store energy for multiple days, if not weeks, could be useful here. On the spectrum, size and weight would not necessarily be a concern here since the battery itself is stationary.
3. A custom-designed battery aimed to power a small device. Efficiency and weight could be the primary concerns in the case of a wearable health monitoring device, for example.
Since the range of use cases is so varied, we would expect a similar push for a diverse array of solutions for energy storage. Lithium-ion technology has been dominant for roughly three decades, but the future could support a collection of different technologies.
Thinking about Battery Life? Focus on the Cathode
When we change the batteries of a remote control or smoke alarm, we see the + and the - signs—and if you’re like me, you have to pay close attention so that the right sign attaches in the proper manner.
• The negative sign or terminal can be called the “anode.”
• The positive sign or terminal can be called the “cathode.”
Every battery needs to get electrons moving in order to provide power. In use, electrons move from the anode to the cathode, and when charging, they reverse. It is well known, however, that batteries cannot be charged and recharged on an infinite basis, and the issues with this tend to emanate from the cathode.
A lot of the research in battery development has gone into what elements and what types of structures work best in the cathode. If we are talking about an NMC 811 configuration, for instance, this refers to nickel-manganese-cobalt, with eight units of nickel, one unit of manganese and one unit of cobalt. This covers certain economic and sourcing concerns while also balancing safety and energy density needs. As the atomic structure within the cathode comes under stress from use and reuse, we notice that the battery life and charging performance may not match what we witnessed when it was brand-new.1
Are Metals Agnostic to Their Source?
Now, the nickel, manganese and cobalt to be used in a battery could come from a variety of places. They might come directly from mines, having never been used before in another battery. Similarly, they might come from a mixture of recycled products, recognizing that it isn’t always a simple matter to mine more of these materials.
Is there a difference? Meaning, should one expect to qualitatively notice that they get lower performance if the source of the battery metals is recycled? Logically, the atoms of the distinct metals should be the same regardless of their source, but it certainly bears testing.2
Redwood Materials is a firm dedicated to sustainable battery metals production and sourcing an ever-increasing amount of the necessary input from recycled content. The Materials Research Group at Argonne National Laboratories recently tested the performance of high-nickel cathodes, like the NMC-811 that we discussed earlier, to see if they could see a performance difference between freshly sourced metals and recycled metals.3
The results from this test indicated that the performance of Redwood’s recycled materials was not distinguishable from that of new metals when used within battery construction.4 We cannot say that this will immediately lead to an explosion of battery recycling from this point forward, but it is an important step, adding to the credibility that if performance and safety are paramount concerns, these can be achieved just as well with recycled materials.
Conclusion: Recycling Has Interesting Supply Chain Implications
Anyone following global battery production would note at a certain point that China is the major player, currently responsible for making roughly 78% of cathode materials.5 We must remember that the metal ores don’t just come out of the ground and go into a battery—there is a lot of processing that has to be done. On the current path, this share could increase to 90% by 2030, even with the U.S. making efforts to invest and expand its own internal capabilities. China has built an advantage—given that the supply chain is domestic to their market, they have centralized expertise and can more quickly and economically break down raw materials and scrap metals and get them into the necessary cathode structure, time and again. China is on a path to get to a place with battery minerals and production similar to where Taiwan is today with semiconductors.6
Redwood Materials is an example of a U.S. company taking rather interesting steps, going from simply selling raw materials to other suppliers to progressing toward the production of its own cathode materials. The firm has even announced a $3.5 billion investment over 10 years in the Reno, Nevada, area, where it plans to produce enough cathode material for 100 gigawatt hours of battery cells by 2025, roughly equal to what CATL, China’s dominant producer, made last year.7
While the demand to recycle generally is high, as the market is pushing sustainable solutions across many industries in 2022, there are risks at this early stage of the industry’s development. One risk is whether a company like Redwood can scale up the production of very pure metals, as purity does make a difference in battery performance. The structure of the metals in the cathodes needs to be very precise. Then there is the issue that many electric vehicles are quite new, so there is not yet a huge volume of car batteries to recycle. Battery recycling occupies an interesting early point in its historical development at the present moment, and we believe that it could be an important link in the broader energy storage value chain as the trend grows in the future.8
We believe the WisdomTree Battery Value Chain and Innovation Fund (WBAT) represents an interesting way to consider the many distinct company activities that contribute to a thriving energy storage ecosystem, including recycling.
Christopher Gannatti is an employee of WisdomTree UK Limited, a European subsidiary of WisdomTree Asset Management Inc.’s parent company, WisdomTree Investments, Inc.
As of November 1, 2022, WBAT held 0% and 2.21% in Redwood Materials and Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL), respectively. Click here for a full list of Fund holdings.
1 Source: Gregory Barber, “Recycled Battery Materials Can Work as Well as New Ones,” WIRED, 10/13/22.
2 Source: Barber, 10/13/22.
3 Press Release: “U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory verifies performance of Redwood cathode from recycled content,” Redwood Materials, 10/13/22.
4 Press Release: Redwood Materials, 10/13/22.
5 Source: Barber, 10/13/22.
6 Source: Barber, 10/13/22.
7 Source: Barber, 10/13/22.
8 Source: Barber, 10/13/22.
Important Risks Related to this ArticleThere are risks associated with investing, including the possible loss of principal. The Fund invests in the equity securities of exchange-listed companies globally involved in the investment themes of battery and energy storage solutions (“BESS”) and innovation. The value chain of BESS companies is divided into four categories: raw materials, manufacturing, enablers and emerging technologies. Innovation companies are those that introduce a new, creative or different technologically enabled product or service in seeking to potentially change an industry landscape, as well as companies that service those innovative technologies. The Fund invests in the securities included in, or representative of, its Index regardless of their investment merit. The Fund does not attempt to outperform its Index or take defensive positions in declining markets, and the Index may not perform as intended. Please read the Fund’s prospectus for specific details regarding the Fund’s risk profile.
Christopher Gannatti began at WisdomTree as a Research Analyst in December 2010, working directly with Jeremy Schwartz, CFA®, Director of Research. In January of 2014, he was promoted to Associate Director of Research where he was responsible to lead different groups of analysts and strategists within the broader Research team at WisdomTree. In February of 2018, Christopher was promoted to Head of Research, Europe, where he will be based out of WisdomTree’s London office and will be responsible for the full WisdomTree research effort within the European market, as well as supporting the UCITs platform globally. Christopher came to WisdomTree from Lord Abbett, where he worked for four and a half years as a Regional Consultant. He received his MBA in Quantitative Finance, Accounting, and Economics from NYU’s Stern School of Business in 2010, and he received his bachelor’s degree from Colgate University in Economics in 2006. Christopher is a holder of the Chartered Financial Analyst designation.