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15 companies working to recycle wind turbines, solar panels and batteries

We need to figure out cheap and efficient ways to recycle clean-energy hardware. From startups to incumbents, here are the innovators tackling this challenge.
By Canary Staff

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tractors move trash in a large landfill
(Mark Rightmire/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

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Weaning our society off of fossil fuels will require a massive buildout of the technologies that make the clean energy economy hum: solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. As this transition gains momentum, we should be planning for what to do when all this equipment starts to reach the end of its useful life. If we don’t, it could enter the waste stream in ways that are harmful to the environment.

Finding techniques and processes to recycle and repurpose this equipment will help prevent this and could also help alleviate pressures on the supplies of critical minerals used to manufacture it. As Canary Media has reported in its ongoing Recycling Renewable series, right now there are many barriers to recycling clean energy technologies, including a lack of coherent policy to guide manufacturers, as well as the expense and hassle of trying to extract useful materials from spent products.

Despite these challenges, a number of innovative startups and incumbents are venturing into the field, experimenting with novel techniques that will help make recycling clean energy technologies profitable and scalable. Here are 15 companies that are taking the lead.

Lithium-ion batteries

  • Umicore: This Belgium-based global minerals and materials processing company launched the world’s first industrial-scale lithium-ion battery recycling facility in 2011. It now recovers copper, cobalt and nickel in volumes of 7,000 metric tons per year, and it has expanded into lithium recovery as well. Umicore has inked battery recycling agreements with automakers Audi, BMW, Volkswagen and Tesla (in Europe).
  • Nth Cycle: This Beverly, Massachusetts–based startup has developed an electro-extraction process to replace the pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy processes typically used to reduce batteries, solar panels and other electronic waste to their core materials. Rather than using blast furnaces and solvents and other chemicals to melt down and dissolve the black mass” created by shredding batteries or other electronic products, Nth Cycle combines electrowinning” processes and filtration to separate the valuable minerals in an electrically charged solution. This process is less energy- and chemical-intensive and can be used in smaller, more distributed settings.
  • Ecobat: This Irving, Texas–based company is the world’s largest global recycler of lead-acid car batteries, with operations in 14 countries, 65,000 collection points and 15,000 partners. Ecobat is now applying what it has learned to the task of recycling lithium-ion batteries, with facilities in Germany and the U.K., and a research and development facility in Dallas.
  • Li-Cycle: This startup went public via special-purpose acquisition company merger last year, has a deal with Ultium Cells, the battery joint venture of General Motors and LG Chem, and is planning a recycling facility near Ultium’s Ohio battery plant. It’s also working with mining giant Glencore, which invested $200 million in Li-Cycle last month.
  • Redwood Materials: This battery recycling startup founded by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel raised more than $700 million from investors last year at a $3.7 billion valuation. The company is planning to invest more than $1 billion in facilities to produce battery anodes and cathode materials from recycled and​“sustainably mined” materials. It collects scrap from the Panasonic battery manufacturing operation at Tesla’s gigafactory. It also has a partnership with Ford and is working with Ford and Volvo to fund the free collection of spent EV batteries in California. (Read more from Canary about Li-Cycle, Redwood and other companies recycling lithium-ion batteries.)
  • Retriev Technologies: Retriev has been recycling lithium-ion batteries for two decades, making it a seasoned veteran in this relatively young industry. The company handles everything from collection and transportation to dismantling, shredding and extraction of useful materials.
  • American Battery Technology Company: Alums from Tesla’s Gigafactory realized they could run battery manufacturing in reverse to dismantle batteries far more efficiently than standard practices allow for today. It’s building a precommercial facility to process 20,000 metric tons of batteries per year. If that works as planned, the next facility will be 10 times bigger.
  • Ascend Elements: Cathodes are the most expensive part of a new battery, so Ascend Elements designed its process to extract old cathode materials and get them ready for duty in new cathodes. It raised $90 million last year to build out its recycling capacity.
  • KULR Technology Group: Battery reuse and recycling require a more robust system for collecting and transporting old battery packs. This must be done safely to avoid fire risk, but it also increases costs. KULR tackles that problem with lightweight, fireproof casing that allows for used batteries to be transported safely without a lot of extra work.

Wind turbines

  • Enel Green Power: This company is a subsidiary of the Italian energy giant Enel Group, which develops and manages renewable power projects worldwide, including 6.6 gigawatts of wind power in the United States. Enel Green Power is partnering with the Re-Wind Network to turn old wind turbine blades into transmission towers at Enel’s Smoky Hills Wind Farm in Kansas.
  • Veolia North America: The Boston-based company of multinational Veolia Group, VNA is working with General Electric to turn spent turbine blades into fodder for cement-making at a facility in Missouri. Machines shred, grind and sort the blades then send the material to cement factories, where the ground-up blades are used to produce cement or fire up the kilns.
  • Makeen Power: This Danish company is designing and building a pilot plant to break down materials in wind turbine blades by exposing them to extreme heat through pyrolysis. Makeen Power is a part of DecomBlades, a consortium of turbine makers and wind farm developers led by energy giant Ørsted.
  • Siemens Gamesa: One of the world’s largest turbine manufacturers, this Danish company recently developed an alternative method of manufacturing turbine blade materials that it says makes blades easier to break down once they’re no longer in service. The first RecyclableBlades will soon be installed at RWE’s Kaskasi offshore wind farm located near Germany’s North Sea coast.

Solar panels

  • First Solar: The biggest U.S.-based solar panel manufacturer in an industry dominated by Asian competitors, First Solar is also a leader in recycling its own solar panels. The Tempe, Arizona–based company operates recycling facilities in the U.S., Germany and Malaysia, it and claims that it’s able to recover and reuse 90 percent of the semiconductor material and glass that make up those panels. These achievements have been driven by First Solar’s unique thin-film cadmium-telluride solar cell technology, which contain toxic materials.*
  • Solarcycle: This Northern California–based startup has set its sights on recycling not just the aluminum and glass that make up most of a typical silicon solar panel’s weight, but also the more valuable copper, silver and silicon that are harder to extract. The company has developed an electrostatic separation process, which separates small particles by mass in a low-energy charged field, to achieve this. It has raised $6.6 million in venture funding from investors including SolarCity founders Peter and Lyndon Rive and Sunpower co-founder Tom Dinwoodie, and landed leading U.S. residential solar installer Sunrun as a customer. (Check out Canary’s recent profile of Solarcycle.)

*Correction: This article originally stated that First Solar modules cannot be disposed of in landfills. According to the company, its end-of-life modules can be disposed of in landfills. We regret the error.

Solarcycle is supporting Canary Media’s Recycling Renewables series. Our editorial team retains full authority over editorial content and news coverage decisions; we do not accept input from donors and supporters.

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