Aqua Metals, a lead-acid battery recycling company, is now one step closer to revolutionizing battery recycling with the opening of their new AquaRefinery.
The 135,000-square-foot facility, located in northern Nevada’s Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center (TRIC), is designed to recycle lead batteries in an environmentally friendly manner.
“Most people are starting to understand that we are entering an age of battery and energy storage,” Steve Clarke, CEO and chairman of Aqua Metals, said at the opening ceremony held July 28.
According to Clarke, lead-acid batteries are 100 percent recyclable; however, it’s typically done through a process called smelting. This is a highly toxic and polluting process in which the batteries are heated at high temperatures to extract the lead. Clarke explained outside of the United States, smelting is poorly regulated and the process releases air emissions such as greenhouse gases into the environment.
“Three years ago, after nearly two decades of work in the battery industry, I came up with this crazy idea, which is why don’t we think of a better way of doing this?” Clarke said.
Thus, Aqua Metals set out to reinvent the way lead batteries are recycled.
According to Clarke, the new technology had to meet three requirements. It needed to be cheaper than smelting, it needed to be a zero-emission process and it needed to be widely adoptable.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about the business model,” Clarke said. “We are really serious about generating a viable economic and advantageous alternative to smelting, and that is what we think we have done.”
They were able to design and engineer a new technology called AquaRefining. AquaRefining uses a room temperature, efficient water-based process to get almost 100 percent of the lead out of batteries in an environmentally friendly, non-hazardous, continuous process that’s powered already by 40 percent renewable energy, Steve Cotton, CCO of Aqua Metals, explained in a prior phone interview.
The company broke ground on the TRIC AquaRefinery back in August 15, 2015, just 340 days prior to the grand opening. Miles Construction served as the general contractor on the project. They started installing the first of the AquaRefining modules this past June. Once all 16 modules will be installed by the end of summer, the AquaRefinery will be able to process 80 tonnes of lead per day. (A tonne, also called a metric ton, is equivalent to 2,240 pounds).
“I have to pinch myself sometimes,” Selwyn Mould, chief operating officer of Aqua Metals, said at the opening. “It is not that long ago I was sitting with Tom (Murphy, the CFO of Aqua Metals), Steve (Clarke) and a couple of other people with no money talking about dreams of building a factory for recycled batteries with the new technology.”
Aqua Metals was able to make that dream a reality through financial backing from both private and public investors.
In 2015, the company secured a $36 million initial public offering (IPO) and in November of that year, Aqua Metals received a $10 million loan guarantee from Nevada’s USDA Rural Development program.
“This is such a great public-private success,” Sarah Adler, the state director of rural development, said.
In May 2016, the company announced a partnership with Interstate Batteries, the country’s leading battery recycler. As part of the partnership, Interstate Batteries will invest $10 million into Aqua Metals and will supply batteries for Aqua Metals to recycle. Aqua Metals also has a partnership with Battery Systems Inc., which will also supply batteries to be recycled and has a facility in TRIC right next to Aqua Metals.
“I would like to say that we built our facility next to theirs on purpose,” Clarke said. “Honestly it was an accident; but it was a phenomenal accident.”
The executives at Aqua Metals praised Storey County and northern Nevada for its business friendly environment.
“Storey County guys totally get it,” Clarke said.
“It has been a great experience,” Mould said. “Working in Nevada just has been easy. People want to help. I can’t recommend the county and the state more.”
Aqua Metals was founded in 2014 and is headquartered in Alameda, Calif. The company plans on hiring up to 70 employees for the new factory. The company anticipates it’s going to double its capacity within the facility by 2018. Aqua Metals also hopes this is going to be the first AquaRefinery of many for the company.
“It’s been a great experience, a great trip and I think there is a bit more to come,” Mould said with a smile.