Revolutionizing Resource Renewal: Scaling Up Sustainable Recycling for Critical Materials

The complex passes through the membrane and meets with a solution that isolates the rare earths to form a rich solution that is converted to rare earth oxide powders, which are suitable for a wide range of industrial applications. Iron, a non-rare earth, is collected separately as a co-product.

“Compared with alternatives such as hydro-metallurgy-based solvent extraction, our MSX method uses fewer chemicals and costs 100 times less,” Bhave said. “The technique is advantageous for other reasons as well: It is scalable and works at low temperatures and low pressure. It recycles acid and water and generates minimal waste to promote a circular economy. MSX requires low capital and operating costs. Moreover, it is robust and versatile, with the ability to process a wide range of complex feedstocks.” Feedstocks are the raw input materials for the recycling process. 

Pure recovery, Seamless Repurposing
Bhave said that MSX can recover and recycle high-purity cathode-active materials to meet the manufacturers’ specific requirements for the creation of new products. Cathode-active materials are a crucial part of a lithium-ion battery’s structure, responsible for the flow of electric current and energy storage.

The researchers have demonstrated that by adjusting the chemistry and adding stages to their technique, they can individually separate and recover cobalt, nickel and lithium from battery waste. 

To supply the project with the necessary raw materials, Momentum Technologies takes lithium-ion batteries from end-of-life items, such as electric vehicle systems and cell phones, and crushes them together to create a powder, called black mass, which is fed into the recycling process. The individual critical elements — cobalt, nickel and lithium — are removed from the black mass in stages.

“The greater-than-99% pure material resulting from the process can be combined to make new lithium-ion batteries with our industry partner,” Islam said. “Again, as was the case with rare earths recovery, a major advantage of our approach is scalability. For example, should the demand for the recycling of battery metals for a particular product suddenly grow, the number of membrane modules can be increased for a greater volume of output.”

Boosting Capabilities, Collaborations
The critical materials recovery project has spanned two, five-year phases of CMI funding. In October, CMI’s funding was extended for another five years, which will allow the project to continue with a renewed focus. The endeavor will now aim to develop and advance the separation of heavy rare earths from light rare earths and generate intellectual property and patents for new technologies. 

The two groups of rare earths have distinct properties and applications that play a crucial role in the respective industrial significance and economic value. Momentum Technologies has licensed the team’s technology for removing heavy rare earths from light rare earths. Additionally, the CMI funding supports the team studying the use of their method on materials extracted during mining operations.

Caldera Holding LLC, the owner and developer of the Pea Ridge Mine in Missouri, has entered a nonexclusive research and development licensing agreement with ORNL to apply the MSX approach to separate rare earths from mixed mineral ores. The Pea Ridge Mine is fully permitted and has significant levels of terbium, dysprosium, holmium and other heavy rare earths that are critical for various technological and industrial applications, including electric vehicle motors and advanced defense systems for U.S. national security. 

Additionally, a collection of six technologies developed by ORNL scientists has been licensed to a company focused on extracting lithium from wastewater produced by oil and gas drilling. 

Lithium-ion batteries power electric vehicles, consumer electronics and defense technologies, and they provide energy storage for the nation’s power grid. Developing domestic sources for lithium, both raw and refined, is critically important to the U.S. economy. The worldwide lithium-ion battery market is projected to grow by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next decade. 

ORNL is also exploring a strategic partnership project with Cirba Solutions. Cirba Solutions was awarded grants of $75 million and $10 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to expand and upgrade its lithium-ion recycling facility in Lancaster, Ohio. 

Furthermore, partnering with ORNL and Momentum Technologies, the critical materials research team plans to apply the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to provide recovered lithium-ion battery materials for Cirba Solutions and ORNL’s Electrification and Energy Infrastructures Division. 

The technologies from this research also hold promise for helping to build the nation’s stockpile of critical materials for aerospace and defense applications.