In a warehouse in Chatsworth, California, rows upon rows of giant wooden crates are stacked forty feet high, in a scene somewhat reminiscent of the secret U.S. military installation shown at the end of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Instead of Biblical artifacts, though, these boxes contain a more modern form of treasure: batteries scavenged from dead electric cars.
Here, electronic waste innovator Eric Lundgren’s latest venture has quietly taken shape over the last year. It’s called BigBattery, and the goal is simple: Buy up discarded lithium-ion batteries originally built to run electric cars, buses, and scooters, and recycle the parts into new batteries that can provide energy storage for home solar arrays, help stabilise electrical grids, and more.
By doing so, BigBattery is hoping to get out in front of what experts warn could become one of the largest electronic waste challenges of the 21st century. Researchers recently estimated that the one million EVs that hit the roads in 2017 will eventually result in around 250,000 tons of toxic battery waste; the tens of millions of cars built in the 2020s will produce far more.
Lundgren, who serves as BigBattery’s CEO, believes giving batteries a second life is the key to reducing this waste and the battery industry’s overall environmental footprint”and while there are many challenges ahead, he’s betting that the second-use market will be highly profitable.
“I’m not getting in trash,” Lundgren told Gizmodo. “I’m getting in diamonds.”
The company, which now has around 50 employees, has garnered $US7 ($10) million worth of investments since it launched in August. It’s currently purchasing spent lithium-ion batteries from roughly half of the auto manufacturers in the U.S. and in various aftermarkets. With a zero-landfill policy, everything it’s taking in is either being recycled for commodity value, or, in the case of most battery components, remanufactured, and resold. This year alone it has contracts to process 43 million pounds of spent EV batteries.
Simon Lambert, a co-lead investigator at the Recycling of Lithium-ion batteries project (ReLiB) at the UK’s Faraday Institution, confirmed that this model could, potentially, work. “Theoretically,” said Lambert, “if you had the wear-withal to be able to receive battery packs in large volumes, you could repurpose a very large percentage of the batteries currently on the market.”
Lundgren, who has been recycling electronics since he was 16 and in 2012 founded IT Asset Partners, a “hybrid” recycling company focused on repurposing old gadgets rather than stripping them for raw materials, laid the groundwork for his latest venture from an unusual place: inside a federal prison.
Lundgren was arrested and sent to jail in June 2018 following an intense legal battle with Microsoft over thousands of Windows restore disks he had manufactured for computer refurbishers back in 2012. (Lundgren claims the disks had no value; Microsoft claimed Lundgren violated its copyright to the tune of $US700,000 ($1,021,383).
Ultimately, the courts decided Lundgren’s actions qualified him for a $US50,000 ($72,956) fine and a 15-month prison sentence.) Determined to stay busy while serving that sentence, before heading to jail Lundgren hired a small team to help him build a new business focused on battery recycling. While there, he wrote letters to his team as well as potential clients and business partners, and used some of his visitation hours to hold business meetings. He likes to say he built the entire company from prison.
Lundgren was released from jail three months early on good behaviour. When he got out in June, his team “flipped the switch,” he said, and turned its operation on. Within a week, Lundgren says, BigBattery had packed its initial 75,000-square foot facility in Chatsworth completely full. Lundgren says the company is currently sitting on 407 megawatt hours worth of batteries, enough to power close to 14,000 U.S. homes for a day.
EV batteries are built to last years to decades, and most of those that BigBattery receives today still have a lot of life. Perhaps a car was totaled in a crash but the battery itself is undamaged. Or maybe out of the dozens of battery modules inside the pack, one or two are bad, and these can be removed. Every day, workers at the company evaluate the condition of the batteries in their inventory and use that information to figure out how to recycle them.
First, specially-trained high voltage engineers disconnect the main power connections to make the modules safe for anyone to touch. Then, a team gets to work subjecting those modules to various tests. There’s a voltage test that tells technicians if a battery is totally bricked and can’t be revived. Dead batteries, along with any proprietary casing from the OEM, are sent to traditional recyclers to be crushed and melted for materials recovery.
Those that still hold charge are subjected to capacity tests; cycled three times to determine exactly how long they’ll last and what they can be used for. Once testing is complete, technicians package usable cells and modules of the same grade together in new configurations to make batteries of varying sizes and voltages.
Lundgren estimates that most EV batteries he receives still have more than 80 per cent of their original charge capacity. While they may no longer be fit for running cars, these batteries are often great for renewable energy storage, said Paul Shmotolokha, the founder of New Use Energy, a company that works with BigBattery to sell its remanufactered power packs overseas.
“It’s really an emerging business,” Shmotolokha told Gizmodo. “You’re able to take an energy storage solution from an application”transportation”and re-engineer for another application where it’s perfectly acceptable.”
Another common source of batteries for the company is e-scooters. The scooters, which have become something of a scourge to drivers and break down or get recalled within months of hitting the streets. But as Lundgren explained, the batteries inside them are designed to last close to a decade. His company is now converting 75,000 e-scooter batteries into 4-pound, portable power packs that can be used for camping or other purposes.
It’s difficult to say how much of the market BigBattery is capturing, because at this point, no one really knows how many spent EV batteries are out there. As with other forms of electronic waste, if electric cars, scooters, and buses aren’t making their way back to to the OEM at the end of their life, they’re incredibly difficult to track, said Faraday Institution’s Simon Lambert. “The idea that OEMs can somehow capture info on where their products are, and what’s happening to them, is a sorta blue sky,” Lambert said, adding that at least for the next decade or two, most EV batteries are likely to remain “totally untraceable” after they’ve been sold.
What’s clear is there are enough EV batteries reaching the end of their first life to support a fast-growing recycling industry. Lambert pointed to several UK-based companies, including Hyperdrive Innovation and Connected Energy, that are processing used EV batteries from manufacturers and giving them second lives. In Oklahoma, five-year-old Spiers New Technologies is doing “life cycle management” for automakers all over the U.S., which means repairing, repurposing, and recycling about 2,000 EV battery packs a month.
BigBattery, for its part, recently purchased a new distribution hub in Singapore, a satellite facility in Hong Kong, and another 145,000 square feet (44 km) of warehouse space in Chatsworth. As of last month the company is turning a profit, and by this time next year, it’s aiming to have doubled its processing volume, according to Lundgren. “It’s gonna get crazy,” he said.
There will be growing pains as the industry matures. Batteries are highly complex, dangerous electronics that can explode, release toxic gases, or electrocute those who don’t treat them with care, so safety has to be a huge priority for anyone getting into recycling. (BigBattery is R2 certified, meaning it upholds rigorous health, safety, and environmental standards, it packages all outgoing batteries in U.S. Department of Transportation-certified packaging, and it does lithium-ion battery fire safety training every six months.) There’s also the fact that battery design and chemistry are evolving rapidly, and new models often require bespoke recycling solutions, which take considerable time and resources to invent. Lundgren said his company is currently spending “millions” engineering solutions.
And while many EV batteries at the end of their first life today still have a lot of juice in them, in the future recyclers are likely to start seeing more fully-degraded batteries, limiting what they can be used for.
What’s more, as global demand for lithium-ion batteries grows and critical metals, like cobalt, become even scarcer, new pressures could emerge that affect the second-use market, according to Faraday Institution research fellow Gavin Harper. In the future, Harper said, there might be instances where it’s more important to melt batteries down to recover cobalt for specialised uses, like EVs, rather than repurposing a rare metals-rich battery for a less finicky application like grid power storage.
“There’s this whole tension between what the market will deliver because of economics and what is optimal from a resource allocation point-of-view,” Harper said. “There’s a real balance to be struck.”
Challenges and uncertainties aside, it’s clear we need to figure out what to do with these batteries so that they don’t wind up as toxic waste in landfills. And most experts agree that re-use will have a critical role to play.
“Reducing the amount of new stuff we make is the most important part of solving a throwaway system, and reusing what we’ve already made is the most efficient way of getting there,” Nathan Proctor who heads the U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s Right to Repair Campaign, told Gizmodo in an email when asked about Lundgren’s latest venture.
Lambert put it more succinctly. “We’re in trouble if we can’t re-use these things,” he said.