January 20, 2017

In his Electrochemical Energy Laboratory, Yan Wang, PhD, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is developing technologies for effectively recycling lithium-ion batteries, which power everything from cell phones to electric cars. Battery makers use a variety of chemical formulations for the cathodes in these rechargeable units (various combinations of lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt), which requires recyclers to carefully sort the batteries to avoid mixing incompatible chemistries. But as it is often difficult to determine what is in a particular battery, most of these devices are tossed. Since analysts project that the resourc­es needed to keep making them could be scarce by 2050, interest in finding a viable recycling method for these batteries is growing.

Within the Center for Resource Recovery and Recycling (CR3) and with more than $2 million in funding from the NSF and the United States Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC), an alliance of FCA US LLC, Ford Motor Company, and General Motors, Wang has developed and is now testing a chemical process that can recover the cathode materials from lithium-ion batteries, regardless of their formulation, size, or shape. It can then produce new cathode material to fabricate new batteries.

The $1 million USABC award, which is 50 percent funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, is supporting a pilot project aimed at scaling up the process Wang and his team have developed, from the coin cells he can produce in the lab to the 25 Ah cells used in electric and hybrid vehicles. The new batteries will be made by manufacturer A123 Systems LLC and will be tested to see if they perform as well as new batteries.

The answer to that question could have enormous economic implications, since Wang’s research has shown that his recycling process, by recovering and reusing up to 80 percent of the cathode materials from unsorted batteries, could cut the cost of cathode materials for vehicle batteries by more than 30 percent. His industry partners project a $2 billion recovery market if the process can be success­fully commercialized.

Additional grants from the NSF and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center have helped advance the recycling technology for commercialization. Wang has co-founded Battery Resourcers LLC with Diran Apelian, PhD, Alcoa-Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering and founding director of WPI’s Metal Processing Institute, and former post-doctoral fellow Eric Gratz; the company was one of 26 (from among 4,200 applicants) selected as finalists in the 2016 MassChallenge Start-Up of the Year competition. Wang also credits CR3 with helping nurture the process that has taken an idea proven in the lab to the brink of a potential new industry.

“The center has helped me a lot,” Wang says. “We work with companies directly, and we can get real valuable input from industry members. We’re fortunate to have the CR3.”