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The Inflation Reduction Act calls for domestically sourced cleantech materials. Can they be obtained sustainably?

The Inflation Reduction Act is intensifying conversations about the types of materials used to create clean energy technologies and how to source them sustainably. Certain tax credit qualifications in the law require domestic sourcing for battery materials, and clean energy proponents are trying to ensure the materials also are obtained in less environmentally damaging ways.

Electric vehicle and battery demand has risen in recent years, and the Biden administration’s billions of dollars in electrification project funding is expected to fuel a larger surge. Critical metal demand for use in batteries and other clean energy technologies — including EV charging infrastructure, solar panels, and wind turbines — is increasing. Simultaneously, the skyrocketing consumer electronics market is fueling more critical metal demand.

The question is not just how to meet all that demand, but how to do it in the least harmful way and within the aggressive parameters in the Inflation Reduction Act. Automakers’ electric vehicles only qualify for tax credits if a certain percentage (by value, not mass) of their battery components are sourced in the United States or free trade partner countries: at least 40% starting next year, 50% starting in 2024, 80% in 2027, and 100% by 2029.

“We have more electric vehicles, and we want to cut tailpipe emissions, and we want to decarbonize transportation. That’s really important to do,” said Jennifer Dunn, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University and director of its Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience. “But what does that mean for the environmental effects of getting the metal that we need right now? We get most of the metals from mining activities that happen outside the U.S.”

Dunn’s research focuses on lifecycle assessments of energy systems and energy storage systems. She began studying lithium-ion batteries more than 10 years ago and now applies the research to the “very timely and current question of how we’re going to make all these batteries within the targets that the IRA sets” without causing larger environmental problems.

“We want to be careful about how we do this,” she said. “For a while it was kind of something very far in the future to think about, and now it’s so immediate.”

Boosting recycling

Lithium-ion battery recycling is a rather young industry that is in growth mode. New technologies and methods for recovering more materials continue to emerge.

The ReCell Center at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois is one of the nation’s most prominent lithium-ion battery recycling research and development centers. The U.S. Department of Energy launched it in 2019 to increase U.S. competitiveness in the recycling market and reduce the country’s dependence on foreign battery material sources. Researchers strive to create novel technologies that make lithium-ion battery recycling more cost-effective, less energy intensive, and able to recover more materials.

Car batteries are shredded at their end of life, which makes recycling the valuable materials inside a challenge.
Car batteries are shredded at their end of life, which makes recycling the valuable materials inside a challenge.

“At Argonne National Laboratory, there’s more early-stage research efforts focused on advanced technology companies that are trying to scale this up and get it out into the real world,” Northwestern’s Dunn said. A fair amount of the technology “still has a ways to go.” 

Some breakthroughs have already come from the ReCell Center, including Michigan Technological University researchers’ innovative process for separating battery cathode materials. And Illinois startup NUMiX Materials collaborated with Argonne on a project to use a process called capacitive deionization to separate end-of-life battery materials for recycling.

Alternative materials

Identifying cheaper and more abundant materials for cleantech is another way to boost the domestic materials supply chain. 

A lot of research and development in the Midwest is occurring in the alternative energy storage chemistry space. For example, Ohio startup Cratus is developing a molten salt thermal energy storage system that relies on the energy released from salts as they change states from solid to liquid and back. Illinois startup Cache Energy is developing an energy storage system based on a thermo-chemical process that the founder says uses a cheap mineral oxide material found nearly everywhere in the world.

Solar panels, wind turbines and a large energy storage battery are seen in this illustration.
Cratus’ molten salt energy storage technologies work particularly well with solar power and nuclear power generation.

Minnesota startup Maxwell Labs developed a material that pulls heat away from electronics. And Minneapolis’ Niron Magnetics partnered with Marquette University in Milwaukee to produce magnets for EV drivetrains that do not contain rare earth materials. 

Modernizing mining

Recycling and alternative materials alone won’t be enough to meet critical material demand, at least in the near term, experts say. Mining is still necessary, and R&D teams in the Midwest and beyond are coming up with ideas to make the practice more sustainable. 

The U.S. Geological Survey has partnered with the Missouri Geological Survey for several projects to identify potential domestic critical mineral sources in the resource-rich Midwest. One project uses magnetometry and radiometry technologies to search for mineral-rich areas in Missouri and Illinois, plus visualization technologies to map areas that had been mined in the past.

Among the clean energy technology advancements at the Colorado School of Mines — including for solar cells and hydrogen — are solutions and resources for sustainably securing domestic critical mineral supplies, including through the newly launched Supply Chain Transparency Initiative.

The Missouri University of Science & Technology says mining engineers are in high demand, especially those who demonstrate their commitment to a sustainable future. Missouri S&T engineers have held virtual workshops on critical minerals like copper, lithium, cobalt, and nickel that heavily focused on securing a sustainable domestic material supply for cleantech.

Holistic path forward

Obtaining materials domestically and sustainably to advance the cleantech sector is possible, and it doesn’t involve just one strategy or sector, Dunn said. Many partners will need to step up and commit to taking a holistic approach to achieve these goals. 

“It’s going to take a lot of people to get this going,” Dunn said. “There’s going to be a lot of need for a lot of collaborations, including local governments, researchers at national labs and universities, and automakers.”