Armed with a business plan to recycle lithium-ion batteries, reuse critical materials and reduce America’s reliance on foreign suppliers, a team of University of Virginia graduate students has won the regional round of the American-Made EnergyTech University Prize, or EnergyTech UP, to advance to the final national event in April.
EnergyTech UP is a collegiate competition sponsored by the Office of Technology Transitions at the U.S. Department of Energy. The program challenges multidisciplinary student teams to develop a business plan using “high-potential energy technologies,” including those developed in a DOE National Laboratory, according to the website.
The UVA team’s proposed business, Redox-Targeting Based Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling — or ReLi for short — aims to recycle all forms of lithium-ion batteries to recover critical materials and reintroduce them back into the supply chain, said the team’s captain Caroline Morin, a Ph.D. student in associate professor Geoffrey Geise’s research group in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Morin’s teammates are Darden School of Business MBA candidates Gregory Pilchak and Aman Dar and fellow chemical engineering Ph.D. student Charles Leroux, who works in Geise’s polymer membrane lab and associate professor Gary Koenig’s research group specializing in battery electrode materials.
ReLi’s plan is premised on the accelerating demand for lithium batteries — which the team calculates at a compound annual growth rate of 12% with an expected market value of $1.9 trillion in 2031, translating to a five-fold increase in demand for critical metals used to make the batteries. Today, the United States depends on foreign suppliers for those materials.
At the same time, “11 million metric tons of lithium batteries are expected to reach end of life by 2030,” Morin said.
“The team is addressing a huge issue,” Koenig said. “When large batteries from electric vehicles and utility storage reach end of life, we will need processes to recover the elements they contain — such as lithium, cobalt and copper — economically and efficiently. This plan will help reduce the potential environmental impacts of these batteries and provide a domestically sourced supply chain.”
In the competition’s first round, Team ReLi won $3,000 in the South Atlantic region for its business plan, qualifying the team to move on to the competition’s next phase, the National Pitch Event at the Energy Thought Summit in Austin, Texas, next month. There, they will be vying for a prize worth $50,000, $30,000 or $20,000.
In the regional round, the UVA team also was named a finalist for the National Lab Technology IP Licensing Bonus Prize for its use of National Lab-developed technologies in its business plan. The National Lab Bonus Prize winner, along with bonus prizes in other categories, was announced on March 7.
ReLi’s plan proposes a system that collects spent batteries and, using processes developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory, breaks down and recovers the elements for resale as battery-grade raw materials. These technologies operate with low energy consumption and reduced chemical waste compared with other battery recycling methods, Morin said.
In addition to creating a U.S. supply of raw materials and preventing toxic battery waste from entering the environment, the ReLi plan seeks reduced reliance on mining; lower price points for electric vehicles, which would mean greater accessibility; and new jobs in communities with retired coal plants.
ReLi’s whole-picture approach reflects a choice facing the nation — a kind of do-over moment.
“Since the discovery of petroleum reserves in the United States, domestic energy demand has increased in correlation with economic growth,” Leroux said. “In almost every material aspect, our country is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. As our demand continued to increase, the life cycle of fossil fuels and its effect on our environment was not taken into account.
“Now we have the opportunity to consider the entire life cycle of batteries as we continue to increase our dependence on electrical energy for technological growth.”
Geise and Koenig are proud of the team members, who, they say, seized the initiative and ran with the National Lab technologies. And they’re taking full advantage of the EnergyTech UP program, which provides resources and mentorship to help them succeed.
“We’re excited to see how their analysis and plan develops,” Geise said. “The students are developing skills important to translating their research out of the lab and in quantitatively assessing technology and business opportunities.”