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After years of anticipation, the Tesla gigafactory opened just outside of Reno in 2016. In this series, KUNR explores everything from hiring efforts, the evolution of battery technology, infrastructure and workforce challenges for the region, and more. Our reporting on Tesla earned a 2016 regional Edward R. Murrow award for best small market radio news series from the Radio Television Digital News Association.

What Do We Do With All Of Tesla's Lithium-Ion Batteries?

Natalie Van Hoozer
This display breaks down the battery recycling process at Aqua Metals, a company that currently recycles lead batteries and is exploring lithium-ion battery recycling.

In the latest installment of our ongoing series, Behind the Battery Boom, we take a look at what happens when we have more lithium-ion batteries to dispose of. Reporter Amy Westervelt has that story.

The Tesla gigafactory isn’t the only new-to-Reno company celebrating a grand opening this summer.

Credit Natalie Van Hoozer
Battery refinery Aqua Metals recently opened near Tesla in the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center.

That’s a tour of Aqua Metals, just down the street from Tesla in Storey County’s Tahoe-Reno Industrial Complex. The company has a novel process for recycling lead batteries. Spokesman Steve Cotton says it’s no coincidence that the company decided to build its recycling plant near Tesla.

"In the case of lithium, we think in the long-term there will be a tidal wave of lithium disposal requirements, because lithium hasn’t really been around that long," Cotton says. "We think therein lies an opportunity to innovate further downstream and find ways to recycle."

That’s not happening yet for a few reasons, starting with the fact that despite all the headlines, there aren’t actually that many lithium-ion batteries in the world. Aqua Metals chairman and CEO Stephen Clarke explains.

“The reality is, we hear a lot about lithium-ion batteries but the sum total of lithium-ion batteries right now equates to less than 4 percent of global battery production," Clarke says. "Ninety-six percent of global battery production is lead acid.”

In addition to their low volume, Cotton says lithium-ion batteries also contain very little lithium, despite their name.

“You won’t be able to recycle more than 3 to 5 percent of a lithium battery because by weight that’s about all the lithium that’s in the battery,” he says.

The volume of batteries the Gigafactory will eventually pump out could change all that. In fact, Tesla has been talking about its battery recycling plans for years but details are hard to come by. In an email, Tesla spokesperson Alexis Georgeson explained that the company’s batteries contain “no heavy metals or toxic materials.” Georgeson says the batteries will eventually be returned to the Gigafactory, where they will be turned into new packs. But, according to everything the company has published about its batteries, they contain nickel and cobalt, both heavy metals, as is lithium.

“There are some pretty severe technical challenges in recycling lithium-ion batteries.” That’s AquaMetals CEO Clarke again.

“They’re not recycled at the moment," he says. "We’re in discussions with lithium-ion battery companies who’ve said, ‘Well could we look at developing a way to recycle them?’ And we probably will in the future, but our first focus is lead.”

According to its website, Tesla currently re-uses about ten percent of each battery – mostly the casing and electrical components. Then the company works with a partner—California-based Kinsbursky Brothers--to recycle metals like cobalt and nickel. They manage to divert some lithium waste to the construction industry where it’s used in cement, but so far no one is turning old lithium-ion batteries into new ones.

“Actually lithium batteries are being recycled, but they’re being recycled for other things in them, not the lithium.”

That’s Brian Jaskula, a lithium expert with the US Geological Survey. “That’s where the money is right now.”

Jaskula says if and when all 400,000 pre-ordered Tesla Model 3s make it onto the road, the company’s recycling plans may actually be viable.

“About ten to 15 years from now, if electric cars are selling at a good rate, that’s when lithium batteries will be recycled for the lithium itself," he says. "And that will have a huge impact on the sourcing of virgin lithium.”

You heard it here first, folks: Lithium recycling.

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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