American Battery Technology Co.’s move this year into a 137,000-square-foot facility at Tahoe Reno Industrial Center will likely prove transformative for the battery recycling company.
ABTC had been operating out of office space in downtown Reno and also had been renting lab space from the University of Nevada, Reno as it worked to bring online a battery manufacturing pilot plant in Fernley and a large-scale commercial lithium refinery in Tonopah.
ABTC will shift gears slightly in 2023, though, after purchasing the facility at TRIC. ABTC paid $6 million for industrial equipment and $21 million for the recycling facility using funding raised through a non-dilutive investment.
Chief Executive Officer Ryan Melsert said ABTC already started moving in large processing equipment to prepare it for installation and commissioning phases.
“We have a very experienced team that has done this work for many years, and it’s really just about executing now and getting these systems operational,” said Melsert. “(These facilities) accelerate our time to market and transition us from the pilot stage to the commercial stage.”
American Battery Technology’s facility at Tahoe Reno Industrial Center could potentially process about 10 percent of the annual materials that are required to make lithium-ion batteries at the nearby Tesla Gigafactory, Melsert said. He would know – Melsert moved to Reno in 2015 after accepting a job as part of the ground-level team that designed and built Tesla’s enormous Gigafactory at Tahoe Reno Industrial Center.
The Gigafactory has become one of the world’s largest buildings, but Melsert said the factory was little more than a trailer propped up on bricks when his team started working at the site. After spending years designing battery manufacturing processes and facilities, Melsert said he was struck by how little attention the industry was paying to end-of-life battery recycling operations, so he left Tesla to found American Battery Technology. Melsert brought over many key members of his old team at Tesla in the process.
“We are excited to be moving into large-scale manufacturing,” Melsert said. “We engage with U.S. automakers and cell manufacturers on a daily basis, and they are excited for us to start providing their facilities with these recycled materials. We are excited to begin recycling at a large scale and start making a difference.”
ABTC’s recycling process differs from other lithium and battery recycling operations. ABTC takes in fully assembled and electrically charged lithium-ion batteries from vehicles, grid storage systems and consumer electronics and feeds them directly into its recycling plant. Automated systems disassemble the batteries into smaller cells and sub-cell components, which then go through further automated processes to separate all the individual components inside the batteries. Nine isolated materials, including lithium hydroxide, nickel, cobalt, manganese, copper, aluminum and steel, are sold back into the battery supply chain.
“We are able to do all that without any high temperature operations, so there is no combustion anywhere onsite, and we are able to do it with very little chemical consumables and low environmental impact,” Melsert said.
ABTC currently has a headcount of about 50, but that number could triple by summer 2024 once recycling operations are fully underway at the TRIC facility. The move-in ready facility formerly housed Aqua Metals. Melsert said all of the infrastructure to set up ABTC’s recycling operations is already in place, while all of the old company’s processing equipment has been cleaned out and removed.
“It really is a way to increase capacity and do so very quickly to start responding to this dramatic demand from the automakers,” he said.
The Fernley plant, meanwhile, will be about 60,000 square feet when it’s completed and will serve to boost recycling capacity, Melsert noted. Plans to construct the pilot plant have been underway for years in order to meet skyrocketing demand for lithium batteries as lithium and electric vehicles continue to become more commonplace, Melsert said.
“Demand for our recycling operations and the products we make has dramatically increased,” he said. “We are still going to keep developing the Fernley property, but because the facility at TRIC is move-in ready, that one will come online first. The plant in Fernley will come online later this year.”
The two recycling facilities aren’t the only pieces in play for ABTC – the company also is developing a lithium processing pilot plant on about 10,000 acres it owns near Tonopah. Melsert said American Battery Technology developed a proprietary method for manufacturing lithium specifically from the lithium-rich sedimentary resources near Tonopah, and the company won a $115 million grant from the Department of Energy to help prove the project and bring it into full-scale commercial lithium production.
Revenue from the recycling operations will provide funding to advance and develop the Tonopah refinery, he added.
“It makes the two projects very complimentary,” Melsert said.
ABTC will produce battery-grade lithium hydroxide from the Tonopah facility, which contains the largest known lithium sedimentary resource in the country, Melsert noted. Construction of the refinery is expected to begin in 2025, with lithium production commencing in 2026. There are some big differences between the recycling and primary lithium manufacturing plants, but there is a lot of functional overlap for ABTC’s design, chemistry and engineering teams, Melsert noted.
The Tonopah Flats lithium refinery will help correct a growing imbalance between domestic supply and demand, Melsert said.
“In addition to the massive Gigafactory, there are more than a dozen other facilities just like it under construction in the U.S. Despite the tremendous amount of battery capacity being built, there are few projects underway to produce battery metals to add to domestic supply,” he said.
“Those huge, multi-billion-dollar factories will be sourcing almost 100 percent of their feedstock from abroad. It’s very expensive, and there is a supply risk if you have to ship materials from other countries to feed your factory. There’s also the environmental impact of having these metals produced in other countries and shipping them across the world.
“We have built-in demand domestically with all these factories being built, and very few projects are going forward to address how to supply them. The battery recycling system and the primary lithium system each can work to address that challenge.”