Bringing batteries back to life: Research groups get federal funding for recycling projects

Rob Nikolewski, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Business News

If the clean energy transition is going to happen, a massive amount of batteries will be needed.

Many will be manufactured, but just as many will be recycled to power the increasing number of electric vehicles and storage facilities needed to make the switch to sustainable energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently distributed $74 million from the recently enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to advance the reuse of batteries. Of that, $16 million went to a pair of San Diego area research groups.

UC San Diego will receive $10 million to develop and scale up technology that recycles lithium-ion batteries. Smartville Inc. of Carlsbad has been awarded a $6 million grant to extend battery use for energy storage systems.

Zheng Chen, who leads the UC San Diego battery research team, said finding second lives for batteries is crucial.

"Today's batteries, especially those used in electronics, are not actually recycled," Chen said in an email to the Union-Tribune. "They might be collected but they are largely landfilled or not treated properly to recover their value and mitigate environmental impact."


Lithium-ion batteries dominate the markets for portable electronic devices, electric vehicles and energy storage systems. But there's a finite amount of lithium that can be extracted around the globe and its costs have increased 13-fold in the past two years, according to mining experts.

The UC San Diego project looks to recycle lithium-ion batteries through a process the lab calls Purification-Regeneration Integrated Materials Engineering, or PRIME. The novel technology takes critical cathode material from spent batteries as well as scraps from the manufacturing process and returns it to the production line.

The lab will ramp up the PRIME process to an industrial level while consuming just 20 percent of the energy used in conventional recycling methods.

"We are very confident that this project will be a success," said Weikang Li, a postdoctoral researcher in Chen's lab at UC San Diego's Department of NanoEngineering. "Battery manufacturing will have a new closed-loop model with less energy consumption and greenhouse gas emission. Meanwhile, it will be more efficient and economic."


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