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Research into recycling critical minerals gets a boost in Michigan

People gather to look at an electric boat during a demo in Elk Rapids. Technologies like electric vehicles require critical minerals. (Photo: Izzy Ross/IPR News)
People gather to look at an electric boat during a demo in Elk Rapids in August 2023. Technologies like electric vehicles require critical minerals. (File photo: Izzy Ross/IPR News)
Michigan is asking colleges and universities for ideas to recycle electric vehicle batteries and other items that contain critical minerals.

It’s putting $4.75 million dollars in matching grants toward the effort. 

Researchers and those at the state’s recycling unit hope it will further Michigan-based efforts to recycle critical minerals. 

This coverage is made possible through a partnership between IPR and Grist, a nonprofit environmental media organization.

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Michigan plans to spend millions of dollars researching how to better recycle minerals found in electric vehicle batteries and other technologies.

One priority of the Critical Minerals Recycling Grant program is to research “circular economy efforts” to reuse critical minerals, like nickel, lithium and cobalt, to support clean energy production.

The state’s department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy plans to offer $4.75 million in matching grants for that work.

Demand for more minerals

As countries pursue more renewable energy, the demand for critical minerals has grown exponentially.

In a 2023 review, the International Energy Agency reported that from 2017 to 2022, “demand from the energy sector was the main factor behind a tripling in overall demand for lithium, a 70-percent jump in demand for cobalt, and a 40-percent rise in demand for nickel.” And the agency projects that demand will continue to grow.

Many critical minerals are mined, processed and refined in a small number of countries, according to the IEA. Groups like Amnesty International have reported that mining for those minerals has led to human rights abuses, including forced evictions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Places like China and the European Union have pushed to increase battery recycling in recent years. And some companies working in northern Michigan already have programs to refurbish and recycle them.

“All the batteries that we get that would be replaced in Toyota vehicles — Priuses, Rav4s, Camrys, Highlanders and stuff like that — those vehicles' batteries, once they're deemed ineffective or damaged in any way, they go back to the manufacturer in California,” said Jeff Corwin, a parts manager who has worked at Serra Toyota in Traverse City for almost 30 years.

Matt Flechter, the recycling market development specialist with EGLE, said they hope this funding will encourage more recycling efforts in Michigan.

“There is a critical need to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place to process those materials closer,” he said, “and that's one of the reasons why we're investing in this.”

Who gets the money?

Applications are open to any colleges or universities in Michigan that are studying reuse and recycling of EV batteries and battery storage units that contain critical minerals.

The average grant amounts will range from $500,000 to $2.5 million, and applicants will have to provide at least a 20-percent match.

“What I'm most excited about is getting those colleges and universities that are working on commercializing technologies,” Flechter said.
Those in the industry say the grants are also an opportunity for researchers to develop new technologies to reuse raw materials and make recycling more efficient.

Lei Pan, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University, has researched critical mineral recycling for years. In 2022, he was part of a team that partnered with Eagle Mine in the Upper Peninsula and was awarded a total of $10.6 million in federal dollars to research domestic battery recycling and reprocessing mine tailings.

Pan said researchers from Michigan Tech plan to apply for funding from the state this spring.

“We’re definitely looking forward to new ideas and new innovation,” he said. “Making sure that the battery recycling industry will become more sustainable in the future, and become more profitable.”

Proposals are due May 24. The state expects grants to begin in October and conclude by September 2029.

Izzy covers climate change for communities in northern Michigan and around the Great Lakes for IPR through a partnership with Grist.org.