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By Faith Ashmore, Benzinga

The global push towards electric vehicles (EVs) represents a pivotal shift in efforts to reduce carbon emissions worldwide. In 2022, transportation was responsible for approximately 50% of greenhouse gas emissions and 80% of air pollutants in California. For Californian lawmakers, the solution was simple a policy to advance carbon neutrality by phasing out the sale of vehicles powered by fossil fuels. While electric vehicles (EVs) are a great way to help decrease carbon emissions, what many are unaware of is that the battery industry is still a contributor to waste and pollution.

There are some challenges when using EV batteries as a solution to achieving carbon neutrality, due to the environmental impact caused by the mining and refining processes of materials such as nickel, manganese, cobalt, lithium and graphite. The production of anode and cathode active materials also involves energy-intensive processes that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

However, while the lifecycle of EV batteries does generate waste, the overall environmental impact is less than that of fossil fuel-powered vehicles. Thats why embracing the recycling of batteries is crucial to overall sustainability. However, even the battery recycling industry is facing challenges in achieving sustainability. Some companies, such as Aqua Metals (NASDAQ: AQMS), are looking to change that.

Aqua Metals: Addressing Challenges Faced By The Recycling Industry

Traditionally, battery recycling has relied on methods like hydrometallurgy, which, while somewhat effective in recovering valuable metals, comes with significant environmental drawbacks. These methods use large quantities of chemicals that lead to substantial waste production, primarily sodium sulfate.

In response to these challenges, Aqua Metals has pioneered a radically different approach to battery recycling that it says aligns with the principles of a circular economy. By electrifying the recycling process, Aqua Metals patented AquaRefining technology eliminates the need for harsh chemical reactions used in traditional metal recovery. This innovative approach not only reduces the embedded emissions from chemical use but also entirely avoids the production of sodium sulfate waste.

Sodium Sulfate Waste

Aqua Metals shares that in the recycling process of lithium batteries, the main waste material is sodium sulfate, which is a byproduct of the chemical reactions used to separate metals during certain processes. To put it in perspective, Aqua Metals says a typical battery recycler generates around 2 to 2.5 tonnes of sodium sulfate for every tonne of battery material recycled. Considering that only 50% of the battery material contains valuable substances such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese, the company reports that this means that the amount of waste produced is four to five times greater than the valuable materials recovered. In other words, the recycling process falls short of true recycling and instead contributes to pollution with a small stream of recovered metals.

While regulators arent yet cracking down on these recycling issues, inefficient and polluting recycling practices are at risk of facing obstacles and threats as regulations do evolve to address these issues. While moving away from fossil fuels is an essential part of staying below the 2 Celsius threshold that scientists around the world are urging leaders and industries to adhere to, its also critical when thinking about how to change existing practices to effectively evolve into sustainable ones.

Can The EV Battery Industry Become More Sustainable?

Recycling batteries is part of the answer, but sustainable recycling is key. Companies like Aqua Metals are at the forefront of this transition, redefining the recycling landscape with innovative technologies that are helping deliver a path to net-zero battery recycling. The companys AquaRefining method significantly enhances the sustainability of the recycling process, offering numerous benefits, such as:

1. Reduced Environmental Impact: By eliminating chemical waste, AquaRefining drastically cuts down the pollution typically associated with battery recycling, helping to preserve ecosystems and reduce landfill usage.

2. Economic Efficiency: With lower operational costs due to the absence of chemical handling and waste disposal requirements, the company says AquaRefining presents a more cost-effective solution for recycling batteries. This efficiency is particularly advantageous as the global demand for batteries increases, necessitating more robust and economical recycling solutions.

3. Support for Domestic Supply Chains: AquaRefining contributes to building domestic supply chains for critical battery materials. As more countries and companies look to reduce dependencies on foreign mineral sources, having a reliable, domestically produced supply of recycled materials is invaluable.

The environmental and community impacts of sourcing critical minerals for the clean energy economy are well documented. By pioneering advancements in sustainable recycling technology, we are enabling the circular battery economy and decarbonizing large portions of the clean energy supply chain, setting a new paradigm for the industryone that minimizes the environmental impacts of critical minerals and offers equitable economic opportunities to host communities. These principles of a circular economy are essential to achieving our most ambitious goals to combat climate change and provide a blueprint for an inclusive energy transition that respects both the planet and its people, shares Aqua Metals Chief Business Officer, Dave McMurtry.

The company recently received the title of 'Leader in Sustainability' bestowed by the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN) as part of its Existing Industry Awards. Its sustainable processes have garnered praise from U.S. Congressman Amodei and U.S. Senator Cortez-Masto, as well as accolades from the Office of Nevada Lieutenant Governor Anthony. Aqua Metals' pivotal approach to a sustainable circular supply chain for essential minerals is helping transform recycling as we know it.

Given the increasing reliance on battery technology and the imminent task of recycling millions of tons of lithium-ion batteries in the future, the implementation of eco-friendly recycling practices is critical. As the industry continues to evolve, Aqua Metals' innovative recycling process could not only offer a blueprint for future developments but also demonstrate the practical viability of environmentally friendly technology. By reducing the ecological footprint of battery recycling, Aqua Metals is not just processing materials it is shaping the future of energy and sustainability.

Featured photo by Josh Power on Unsplash.

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