Most of the materials required for batteries and other clean energy technology are dirty to mine. They’re also mostly controlled by China. Can a recycling technology startup change that?
Electrek spoke with Megan O’Connor, cofounder and CEO of Nth Cycle, a Beverly, Massachusetts-based developer of a recycling technology that extracts critical metals from batteries for a second life, about how to enable a clean, domestic, and streamlined supply of critical minerals for the clean energy transition. Nth Cycle’s technology was developed at Harvard and Yale universities.
In April, Nth Cycle received $3.2 million in seed funding led by Boston-based clean energy venture capital company Clean Energy Ventures.
Electrek: What does Nth Cycle do?
Megan O’Connor: Nth Cycle is a metal processing and recycling technology company. We work with recyclers and miners to recover the critical minerals essential to clean energy technologies such as batteries and wind turbines.
Our customizable and clean electro-extraction technology installs onsite to recover critical minerals from separated e-waste and low-grade mine tailings. We are the heart of metals processing – the crucial step that profitably separates critical minerals from other elements, transforming them into production-grade feedstocks for the energy transition.
Electrek: How does your new battery recycling technology work?
Megan O’Connor: Existing technologies that recover critical minerals from e-waste and mining are dirty and inefficient. The main two technologies, pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy, are both problematic.
Pyrometallurgy is what it sounds like: It uses large, dirty furnaces to superheat materials for recycling. Pyrometallurgy consumes excessive energy and emits greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
Hydrometallurgy uses liquid for a similar result. Hydrometallurgy uses harmful acids and solvents that create tons of environmentally toxic chemical waste. Both processes were invented over 50 years ago.
At Nth Cycle, we’re taking a different approach to expanding the supply of critical minerals for the clean energy revolution. We leverage the power of electro-extraction: clean and modular technology for reliably recovering critical minerals from e-waste and low-grade mine tailings using only electricity. Our electro extraction technology is clean, customizable, consistent, and mobile.
Electrek: How often can materials be recycled?
Megan O’Connor: In theory, the number is unlimited. It’s a big part of why I believe that all the critical minerals needed for the energy transition are already in circulation today. We just didn’t have a clean, profitable way of retrieving them until now.
We know that demand for critical minerals to power the energy transition is growing exponentially. Yet, we know mining deeper and broader, and building landfills higher and wider works against our fight to save the planet. Additionally, we cannot allow either supply chain issues or China’s dominance in critical minerals to slow the clean energy transition. Recycling and better domestic mining offer our best path forward.
Electrek: How are you working with mining companies to help them extract more valuable material from mining waste?
Megan O’Connor: Our technology is mobile and scalable so we can work with mining companies in a variety of ways. Primarily we work with them at the front end of their process. We can go to the mining site with our electro extraction technology and work with them on site.
This may be surprising to your readers, but the US has some significant potential for domestic mining of critical minerals. If we can access and extract those minerals cleanly, efficiently, and economically, it’ll pay substantial dividends for our clean energy industries – Nth Cycle’s technology can make that possible.
Electrek: How do you intend to scale up, and what does that road map look like?
Megan O’Connor: The opportunity is nearly limitless. The demand curve for critical minerals looks like a ski jump – it’s straight up.
Earlier this year, we received seed funding from investors led by Clean Energy Ventures (CEV). Recently the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, through their InnovateMass program, awarded us a $250,000 grant. We expect to be able to discuss more about some exciting upcoming partnerships and projects later this year.
The growth is exciting and can make a significant impact. Part of the reason CEV decided to fund us was that their carbon impact calculator estimated that we could cut 3.8 gigatons of emissions by 2050. We’re still at an early stage, but the opportunity is obviously exciting.
Electrek: Zambia has a new president who wants to scale up mining, as the country has valuable copper, nickel, and cobalt. Will this improve the supply chain and human-rights challenges, and does Nth Cycle have any plans to engage in Zambia?
Megan O’Connor: The mining of many of our clean energy minerals in Africa is horribly dirty, exploitative, and polluting. At Nth Cycle, we see this challenge as an opportunity. An opportunity to draw the resources needed for the energy transition from more efficient mines. A chance to make recovery processes more sustainable while improving profits at the same time.
The tools required to mine cobalt, nickel, and manganese (critical for our clean energy future) exist today. The technologies needed to break down old cell phones, magnets, and electric vehicles into their component parts exist today.
But, the incumbent processes that transform these harvests into production-grade critical minerals for new manufacturing are old, dirty, and expensive. We’re at the early stages of this company – and the clean energy transition as a whole. Right now, we’re laser-focused on scaling up domestically, but there is no doubt that working to clean up the mining process in Africa is important – one step at a time.
Megan O’Connor is cofounder and CEO of Nth Cycle. She leverages years of experience working on sustainable technology in many of the US’s top research labs, where she helped develop the electro-extraction processes she and her team are commercializing at Nth Cycle.
Prior to founding Nth Cycle, O’Connor was an entrepreneurial fellow in the Innovation Crossroads program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and was a visiting researcher at Yale University’s Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering. O’Connor received her PhD in environmental engineering from Duke University and was recognized by Forbes on its “30 under 30” energy list in 2019.
Nth Cycle is supported by investors including Clean Energy Ventures, the Department of Energy, and Creative Destruction Lab.
Photo: Nth Cycle
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