There's a global race on to find the rare (and not-so-rare) minerals that are at the heart of the zero-emission energy revolution.
Batteries, wind turbines, solar panels, motors, and new heating and cooling technologies depend on precious minerals that are currently consolidated in a few places. That's why investors and big businesses are pouring millions into new companies that are aimed at finding new ways to bring these minerals to markets and supply the industries that sorely need them.
In the U.S. and Europe companies like Phoenix Tailings, Redwood Materials, and the startup Nth Cycle, which just raised $12.5 million in a new round of funding, are tackling the problem.
Nth Cycle recovers cobalt and nickel from used batteries, mining waste and low-grade ores using a process the company developed called "electro-extraction". By passing an electrical current through a special filter, Nth Cycle can remove selective metals from waste streams.
"The world is on the precipice of a generational disruption in how we create, transmit and store energy and how we power transportation. Battery storage, electric vehicles, wind turbines, and other tools of this transformation are already seeing record growth and investment. Still, global mineral supplies cannot keep up with that demand," said Boris Bystrov of Mercuria, a commodities and mineral trading firm and strategic investor in Nth Cycle. "Nth Cycle offers a unique solution in ensuring unfettered access to a safe, equitable, and clean supply of cobalt, nickel, and other critical minerals that fuel this transformation."
At commercial scale the company's technology can process five tons of material per-day using a 1,000 square foot system that can be integrated into most existing mining or industrial operations, according to the company's founder and chief executive, Megan O'Connor.
Its first commercial demonstration should be deployed in April, according to a statement from the company.
"The energy transition will require supplies of critical minerals in North America that simply do not exist today in the market," said O'Connor, in a statement. "The world now knows it needs a more reliable critical mineral supply, but the heavy financial and environmental costs of achieving it have been a considerable barrier to success. Our technology removes these barriers and clears the path to an accelerated transition."
Nick Myers the chief executive of another mining waste recycling company, Phoenix Tailings, emphasized just how important securing these metals are to the future of U.S. manufacturing.
Writing in the Boston Herald, Myers noted:
One of the many lessons the world learned from COVID-19 is that supply chains are only noticeable once they stop working. In 2019, the U.S. was the world’s largest importer of medical goods, and nobody thought there would ever be a shortage of PPE. In February 2020, China restricted medical exports. When the pandemic reached the United States, governments and hospitals were scrambling to buy what few protective gowns, N95 masks and other PPE were available.
China only produced 25% of the world’s face masks, but it currently makes more than 90% of the world’s refined rare-earth metals. If exports were restricted for any reason — whether simply to prioritize domestic Chinese companies or as a prelude to a military conflict — the results would be catastrophic.
While Phoenix Tailings and Nth Cycle use chemical processes to mine waste, a New Zealand company called Mint is turning to microbes into biological miners. The company's technology feeds organisms the waste and then extracts the raw materials from the bacteria.
And the Florida-based company Precision Periodic has a filtration technology to remove precious metals from wastewater.
Other businesses are taking rare earth metals, magnets, and other components from electronic waste in the cities and towns where consumers have another kind of electronic waste problem. These are businesses like Urban Mining Co. and Momentum Technologies, which are taking the magnets and metals in the cell phones, computers, and tablets that have been put out to pasture and harvesting them for resale and reuse.
Even appliances are on the recycling block. That's what the Atlanta-based startup Recleim is after -- taking old appliances and breaking them down into their component parts and even scrap materials for reuse.
Using technology licensed from the German business Adelmann Umwelt, Reclaim can recycle all types of large appliances. It's the first entirely closed loop resource recovery system in North America, according to the company.
The largest of all of these recycling businesses are Ascend Elements (previously known as Battery Recyclers) and Redwood Materials.
Ascend is building one of the largest battery recycling facilities in the nation in Georgia -- next to several electric vehicle and battery factories. Meanwhile Redwood Materials, founded by the electric car maker Tesla's former chief technology officer, has raised hundreds of millions for battery recycling facilities.
The company is already reclaiming battery materials at a recycling plant in Nevada and has plans to expand internationally with a multi-billion dollar facility in Europe.
Redwood has the benefit of nearly $800 million in private funding behind it, but will likely also tap public money. The U.S. government is racing to support these battery initiatives with something like $3 billion in funding.
“Applying next-generation technology to convert legacy fossil fuel waste into a domestic source of critical minerals needed to strengthen our supply chains is a win-win — delivering a healthier environment and driving us forward to our clean energy goals,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, in a statement earlier this week.