Aqua Metals gets the lead out

Dr. Steve Clarke waves to the crowd after the ground breaking at the new Aqua Metals facility at TRIC.

Dr. Steve Clarke waves to the crowd after the ground breaking at the new Aqua Metals facility at TRIC.

Oakland, Calif.-based Aqua Metals is ready to start construction in Storey County on what the company is calling “the first commercial electrochemical lead battery recycling plant.” Last week, the business broke ground on a 12.5-acre site at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center east of Sparks, which is also home to the Tesla lithium-ion Gigafactory. The project is backed by a $10 million loan guarantee from Nevada’s USDA Rural Development program and a recent $30 million initial public offering.

According to Founder/CEO Dr. Steve Clarke, when operational in early 2016, the AquaRefinery will be the world’s first large scale lead recycling facility that does not require a traditional smelter to reprocess lead batteries and will begin production with 80 metric tons per day (a metric ton is about 2204.6 pounds).

The new plant will hire up to 70 people to staff the facility.

Aqua Metals’ “disruptive technology has the potential to transform the $22 billion global lead industry,” Clarke said. Lead acid batteries (LAB) represent more than 95 percent of the global annual production of rechargeable batteries and they are critical to many high growth industries, particularly automotive, but also in data centers, telecommunications and energy storage applications. However, up to now, LAB recycling has been done through smelting — primarily in China, Mexico and the Philippines — which is highly toxic, polluting, inefficient and expensive. Smelting furnaces cause carbon dioxide emissions and generate waste materials, which is why most U.S. facilities have shut down. There is only one smelter left west of the Rockies because the plants can’t meet U.S. air and water quality standards.

“Our AquaRefinery is intended to produce lead with a much higher purity than can be achieved with conventional recycling,” Clarke explained.

Battery recycling is crucial because primary lead mines, the main source of ultra pure lead, are being rapidly depleted due to demand. He says the firm’s technology offers an efficient, scalable, economical alternative that is environmentally advantageous because it eliminates toxic waste and the need to transport heavy materials out of the country for recycling.

The TRIC location was chosen, Clark said, “because Story County clicked all the boxes to meet our requirements.”

The loan guarantee from USDA Rural Development has been key to the ability to move the project forward. “Not many conventional lenders will make a $10 million loan for a first-in-the-world technology,” explains Sarah Adler, Nevada’s state director. “It’s just too risky, so that’s where we come in. We offer a variety of capital financing to help rural communities thrive.”

Should the company fail, they will cover up to 90 percent of the debt.

“We closely evaluate these deals,” she continued. “ I went to Oakland and saw the AquaRefining process. I think they are going to be successful because it makes so much sense to recycle batteries near where they are being collected.“

The facility is being built by Miles Construction of Carson City.


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