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How a Georgia plant is helping solve a huge EV supply chain kink
In a reused half-century-old factory about an hour east of Atlanta, a Massachusetts company is on the front lines of expanding the American electric vehicle supply chain. And it all starts with recycling.
Ascend Elements' new facility near Covington Municipal Airport takes spent lithium-ion batteries and scrap from EV battery-makers and grinds them to dust, salvaging minerals for reuse in new EV power sources. Ascend Elements and its 150,000-square-foot recycling plant, which opened last August, is an underappreciated part of the multi-billion-dollar wave in EV and battery investment that Govs. Nathan Deal and Brian Kemp have courted to make the Peach State an EV hub.
EV makers like Rivian and Hyundai Motor Group and battery companies like SK Battery America have captured much of the public attention. But companies like Ascend, if they're successful, will help realize a goal of the automotive industry and President Joe Biden—to create a domestic supply chain for the electrified future of the industry.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Democrats' signature health and climate bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act have committed billions of dollars to domestic EV and battery manufacturing and charging infrastructure as the Biden administration has pledged to make EVs half of all vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2030.
Once on the road, EVs are far cleaner than internal combustion vehicles. Unlike conventional cars and trucks that are powered by burning fossil fuels, EVs produce no tailpipe emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases. But EV battery manufacturing relies on so-called "rare earth" minerals like lithium and cobalt that are mined, often overseas, and have triggered significant pollution and human rights concerns. The battery supply chain today is also controlled largely by China, a fierce geopolitical and economic rival.
Ascend Elements officials said recycling those rare metals is critical to making the shift to EVs more affordable, ethical and a key weapon against climate change.
"Once we get to the point where most of the materials are recycled materials, the carbon footprint of electric batteries is going to decline," company spokesman Thomas Frey said. "Electric vehicle battery materials are infinitely recyclable."
Ascend Elements held a ceremonial opening for its Covington plant Wednesday and granted a tour to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other guests earlier this week.
Wolfgang Pena, Ascend Elements' senior mechanical engineer, said new technologies, like EVs, often receive negative attention for every growing pain. He said there's a bevy of misinformation claiming that exhausted batteries will litter landfills and perpetuate the same environmental risks presented by fossil fuels, but he said solutions exist.
"I think it's a change, and people are resistant to change," Pena said. "But we are able to demonstrate that we can recycle every last part of these batteries."
'A supply chain opportunity'
The Covington facility, known as Base 1, is the first step in the recycling process.
Packaged electric battery cells—often called jelly rolls—are shipped to the plant where they get broken down and shredded. The resulting powder called "black mass" is then shipped to the company's headquarters in Massachusetts and converted into new EV battery components known as cathodes.
"Recycling is not only a waste management solution, it's a supply chain opportunity," Frey said.
Ascend Elements expects to employ about 150 workers and has the capacity to annually shred 30,000 metric tons of battery scrap. The company touts that 98% of battery materials can be recovered and reused.
Currently, most material processed in Covington never made it into an EV or was used in any device. It's mostly scrap waste from battery manufacturing, which is easily broken down into its base materials using magnets, centrifugal force and fracking, Pena said.
Spent batteries have their own processing line within the facility due to their increased risk of combustion, a particularly dangerous risk for electric battery cells. Pena said they limit risk by using a nitrogen chamber to prevent oxygen from igniting these materials during shredding.
Since 2020, more than 35 EV-related projects have been announced in Georgia, totaling more than $21 billion in investment and 27,400 jobs, according to Kemp's office. In return, state and local officials, meanwhile, have offered billions in local tax breaks, job tax credits and other incentives.
Pat Wilson, the state's top economic development officer, told the AJC recently that Georgia is at the center of the nation's electrification movement, creating good-paying jobs, particularly in rural areas.
Battery producers need their own domestic supply chains, Wilson said, and the reshoring of these manufacturing jobs are "a diversification beyond Asia."
"Being able to take 95 to 98% of the metals in these batteries out of the environment and back into the supply chain helps us be independent of countries that are not friendly," Wilson said.
Frey said proximity to EV battery makers was key. One of the company's customers is SK Battery America, which operates a $2.9 billion EV battery manufacturing operation in Commerce. Once recycled, the materials are provided to customers that include Honda Motor Co. in North America, which plans to build EVs in Ohio and electric motors and gearing in Georgia.
Frey said shipping costs are exorbitant for hazardous materials such as lithium-ion scrap.
"There's sort of a critical mass that starts to develop when an industry chooses to locate in a place," he said.
He said Ascend Elements received roughly $10 million in state and local incentives to choose Newton County, which is also near Rivian's planned $5 billion EV factory.
Frey declined to say whether Rivian or Hyundai, which is building a $5.54 billion EV factory near Savannah, are customers. Cox Enterprises, the parent of the AJC, owns about a 4% stake in Rivian.
"It is such a competitive industry that a lot of companies don't want to announce who their suppliers are," he said.
Ascend Elements also received a $480 million federal grant to build a future Kentucky facility, where the Covington facility will eventually supply black mass.
2023 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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