While Tesla opened up its huge battery factory under construction outside of Reno, Nev. for the first time this week, one of its neighbors is also moving closer to trying to make a dent in the battery world.
On Thursday, battery recycling startup Aqua Metals plans to hold the grand opening of its factory in the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center, the same 166-mile sweeping industrial park that holds Tesla’s Gigafactory, a Walmart distribution center and one of Switch’s data centers.
The two-year-old startup, based in Alameda, Calif., broke ground on the factory a little less than a year ago and now has major recycling equipment in place to start breaking down lead-acid batteries from cars, golf carts, and data centers before the end of the year.
The company says its process uses less energy, is less expensive, and is more environmentally-friendly than the standard way to recycle these types of batteries, which is smelting.
On Wednesday, the company showed off the new facility to Fortune, walking us though how the plant would break down an old battery and through a chemical process produce recycled lead products.
While Tesla will be making lithium-ion batteries five miles away at the Gigafactory, Aqua Metals will be recycling lead-acid batteries, which are basically made up of sulfuric acid (mostly water), plastic, and lead. Lead acid batteries are the kind that start up and power the electronics for gas-powered cars.
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Most of the world’s lead acid batteries are recycled by smelting, which is a very energy-intensive process that uses extremely high heat to separate out the lead and reuse it. Smelting also tends to be a pretty dirty process, commonly emitting lead dust, sulfur dioxide, and greenhouse gases.
The first part of Aqua Metal’s process is, of course, to collect old batteries. The company is working with battery distributors like Interstate Batteries, one of the largest lead acid battery recyclers in the U.S., and battery supplier Battery Systems, which has a facility next door (a happy accident, say Aqua Metal’s executives).
Aqua Metal’s Chief Commercial Office Steve Cotton explains the process that tears the batteries apart.Fortune/Katie Fehrenbacher
After the batteries arrive at the factory, they’re put on a conveyor belt, which takes them into a machine that basically tears them apart, pulling out and collecting the liquid sulfuric acid in tanks, and the plastic casing, which will be made into pellets and recycled.
The valuable part is the lead. About half of a lead acid battery’s lead has to be pure, which facilitates the battery chemical reaction, and half can be a lead alloy.
Aqua Metals pulls out both the hard metallic lead alloy that is shaped in plates and the pure lead paste which coats the plates. The company melts down the metallic lead (at a much lower temperature than smelting) in large machines, and turns them into ingots to sell.
Aqua Metals melts down lead alloys into ingots, stamped with its stock symbol AQMS.
All of the tearing apart, breaking down, and lead melting is pretty standard. It’s what Aqua Metals does with the lead paste that is new and the secret sauce to their process.
The company takes the lead paste and puts it into tanks that remove the sulfur from it. Then the lead solution goes into a digestor and gets dissolved into an electrolyte. Next it goes through an electrolyzer, which uses electricity to produce a chemical reaction. Spinning discs scrape off the lead paste from the electrolyzers onto another conveyor belt.
Aqua Metals will soon recycled lead acid batteries.
Through the company’s material science and nanotechnology innovations in the digestor, electrolyte, and electrolyzer, the company can produce a pure lead paste from the recycled lead. The pure lead paste that comes out is nanostructured, meaning it has ultra-tiny particles and could have unique characteristics when used in batteries.
Aqua Metals CEO and Chairman Steve Clarke tells us that the company is first and foremost a battery materials company, but that lead acid battery recycling was just the first step to building a business.
Aqua Metals CEO Steve Clarke stands under the electrolyzers.Photo courtesy of Fortune/Katie Fehrenbacher
Aqua Metals is building out 16 modules in its factory this year, and each module contains six electrolyzers. Those modules, along with the metallic lead recycling process, will be able to produce 80 tons of lead a day by the end of 2016.
Clarke and Cotton are quiet on exactly when the lead recycling process will be up and running, but it’s safe to say within in a few months. The factory could also be expanded to produce 160 tons of lead a day.
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As the factory isn’t up and running, Aqua Metals isn’t yet making money. But through an IPO last summer, Aqua Metals is already a public company. To get this far, they’ve raised over $65 million through a combination of the IPO, private investors, and a loan guarantee backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Aqua Metals is a young company, and they’re just getting their first factory up and running, so there will likely be hurdles ahead. The company’s stock is heavily shorted, which Clarke says is because the founder’s 12-month lock-up period is ending soon.
But Clarke and Cotton have high ambitions for the recycling process. “We’re already planning factories two, three, and four,” says Clarke.