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Another US EV-battery recycler just raised a massive funding round

Ascend Elements attracted $542 million in investment to make cathodes from spent EV batteries, just a week after Redwood Materials raised $1 billion.
By Jeff St. John

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A worker handles spent batteries at Ascend Elements’ Covington, Georgia battery recycling facility.
A worker handles spent batteries at Ascend Elements’ battery recycling facility in Covington, Georgia. (Ascend Elements)

Ascend Elements has raised $542 million to take its plans to recycle lithium-ion batteries to the next level. The investment round announced Wednesday will support building a factory in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where Ascend will process the black mass” derived from slicing and sorting old lithium-ion batteries into precursor cathode active materials (pCAM) and cathode active materials (CAM).

Ascend plans to spend about $1 billion to build the Kentucky facility. Last year it won $480 million in grant funding from the Department of Energy to go toward its construction. This $542 million we announced today will be coupled with, and really unlock, the DOE grants,” CEO Mike O’Kronley said in a Wednesday interview. 

Ascend already processes black mass into lithium carbonate, a key mineral for lithium-ion batteries, at its Covington, Georgia facility that opened in March. The pCAM and CAM it will make from black mass at its Kentucky facility, by contrast, will be precisely engineered at the molecular level to serve as a direct input into lithium-ion battery manufacturing. When it’s up and running, the factory will have enough capacity to provide materials for batteries for up to 750,000 electric vehicles per year. 

There’s a lot of activity, a lot of investment that’s going to support the energy transition,” O’Kronley said. We are providing a key part of that overall transition, with respect to batteries. We’re helping to make batteries more sustainable.” 

Ascend’s new funding round — led by Decarbonization Partners, Singapore-based investment firm Temasek, and Qatar Investment Authority and joined by investors including Agave Partners, Alliance Resource Partners, Alumni Ventures, BHP Ventures, Fifth Wall, Hitachi Ventures and Tenaska — is one of the largest in the cleantech space this year. 

But it’s in line with some of the larger funding rounds going to U.S. startups targeting the voracious demand from the fast-growing U.S. battery and electric-vehicle manufacturing sector, including $1 billion raised by battery-recycling startup Redwood Materials earlier this month. 

The Biden administration has also made battery recycling a priority, with the DOE earlier this year offering a $2 billion conditional loan commitment to Redwood Materials for facilities in Nevada and South Carolina to produce anode and cathode components and a $375 million conditional loan commitment to Canada-based Li-Cycle for a New York facility to process lithium carbonate. 

Recycled battery materials could be a vital source of supply for the fast-growing U.S. lithium-ion battery and EV industries. Over the past year, more than $53 billion has been invested in U.S. EV battery and supply-chain manufacturing capacity, largely to meet demand from automakers planning to invest more than $200 billion in domestic production of EVs over the coming decade. DOE forecasts that U.S. battery production capacity could hit 1,000 gigawatt-hours a year by 2030.

Today, China supplies the vast majority of the world’s lithium-ion battery pCAM and CAM from mined metals. Ascend and other battery recyclers are targeting the growing supply of depleted batteries to provide much of that material at far lower cost and environmental impact. 

Construction site for the $1 billion lithium-ion battery recycling facility being built by Ascend Elements in Kentucky.
Ascend Elements is building a $1 billion facility to process the raw “black mass” created from lithium-ion battery recycling into engineered precursor materials for new EV batteries. (Ascend Elements)

Ascend’s patented Hydro-to-Cathode” process, originally developed by researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute more than a decade ago, skips several intermediary steps of more traditional methods for making pCAM and CAM, O’Kronley said. The company is already producing pCAM for nickel manganese cobalt (NMC) lithium-ion batteries at its facility in Westborough, Massachusetts. 

Peer-reviewed research indicates that cathode materials made from recycled batteries perform just as well as those made from primary metals. And deriving them from recycled batteries rather than raw materials that have to be mined, shipped and refined reduces the associated carbon emissions by 93 percent, Ascend Elements says. That’s largely because we’re starting with a highly concentrated source” of minerals already in batteries, O’Kronley noted. We just process it, purify it, and make these materials directly.” 

Recycling won’t be able to eliminate mining for new lithium-ion battery materials. The booming demand sparked by EV manufacturing growth will far outpace the scale of available used batteries for years to come. But recycling can make a dent in the need for new mining, and produce battery materials at lower cost. 

And EV batteries need to be recycled anyway, to keep their toxic materials out of landfills. The amount of lithium-ion battery waste from EVs is expected to grow from roughly 600,000 metric tons in 2021 to as high as 11 million metric tons worldwide by 2030.

Ascend is now feeding its Georgia recycling facility with battery scrap from a nearby SK Battery America plant as well as from other battery factories in the Southeast’s growing battery belt.” It is also lining up customers for its pCAM and CAM products. In June it announced a $1 billion contract with an unnamed U.S.-based company to supply sustainable pCAM starting in Q4 2024 with options to expand the multiyear contract to a larger quantity with a value of up to $5 billion.

Any battery manufacturer would prefer to have more sustainable materials that are produced sustainably rather than mined out of the ground,” O’Kronley said. 

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.