News
Sponsored
Emerging tech
VC

Can this start-up solve the battery supply chain’s waste problem?

With fresh seed capital, Aepnus Technologies hopes to use electrolysis to eliminate sodium sulfate waste from battery manufacturing.

Listen to the episode on:
Apple Podcast LogoSpotify Logo

Photo credit: Martin Bernetti / AFP via Getty Images

Photo credit: Martin Bernetti / AFP via Getty Images

The lithium-ion battery market has a waste problem. Every step of its supply chain, from mining to recycling, generates a white crystalline salt as a byproduct: sodium sulfate. 

An average battery plant produces between 50,000 and 100,000 tons of sodium sulfate per year. And at the moment, the main outlet for its disposal is a landfill. 

  • The top line: The startup Aepnus Technology has developed an electrochemical platform that recycles sodium sulfate waste, designed to tackle the battery supply chain’s waste problem. The company emerged from stealth today with a $8 million round of seed financing, led by Clean Energy Ventures.
  • Market grounding: The International Energy Agency anticipates that the global market value of batteries will need to quadruple by 2030, to $330 million. And in light of this projected growth, battery recycling is attracting a lot of money from investors hoping to build circularity into the supply chain and reduce the need for mining. But the industry is still in its infancy; Aepnus’ co-founders anticipate that the wide-scale adoption of tech solutions to the waste problem is likely at least a decade away. 

Aepnus co-founders Lukas Hackl and Bilen Akuzum met at University of California, Berkeley, as exchange students 13 years ago. Now, the two engineers and first-time founders are ready to go public with their invention: a technology that converts sodium sulfate waste back into sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid, two input chemicals essential to battery production.

According to chief executive officer Hackl, the sodium sulfate is a problem across the battery supply chain. 

“While we were doing customer discovery, the problem that kept popping up — whether we were talking to folks recycling batteries, mining battery minerals, or making battery cells — was this waste stream issue,” Hackl said.

Akuzum, the chief technology officer, told Latitude Media that it uses clean electricity to “put energy back into the salt waste, to split it back into acid and base form.” The process uses an electrolyzer the size of a pickup truck, which is designed to process around 20,000 tons of sodium sulfate yearly.

Listen to the episode on:
Apple Podcast LogoSpotify Logo
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.
No items found.

The path to deployment

According to Akuzum, Aepnus’ goal is for its technology to fully recycle a potential customer’s sodium sulfate waste, and to keep doing so indefinitely, as there’s “no decrease in quality over time.”

But that vision is a long way off for the young company. 

Aepnus will use its seed financing round to deploy pilot systems and to ramp up a demonstration-scale system in the next two years or so. In addition to Clean Energy Ventures, Voyager Ventures, Lowercarbon Capital, Impact Science Ventures, Muus Climate Partners and Gravity Climate Fund also joined the round.

A flagship, two-ton-per-year pilot system is already in the works to a group of customers in Canada. The eventual demonstration-scale project is planned to be 10 times as large.

The start-up is still evaluating which business model is best suited to its needs: selling the technology with maintenance packages, or developing and operating plants itself. But the co-founders hope to achieve commercial scale in around four years, according to Hackl. 

And after four years? Well, the Aepnus vision is that a battery company using its technology could theoretically stop trucking in hundreds of tons of sodium hydroxide and sulfuric acid daily. 

A cobalt mine in Canada, for example, consumes about 60 tons of sodium hydroxide and 100 tons of sulfuric acid per day, according to Akuzum. And while the costs of these chemicals vary from customer to customer, for some precursor-cathode active material plants they can account for as much as 30% of operating expenses. 

“Being able to generate these chemicals on-site can be a huge cost-saver, and would allow companies to untether themselves from a fluctuating market,” Akuzum said. “We can offer these chemicals at the spot price that they would normally purchase off the market. And…because these chemicals are being regenerated on-site, there is no transportation cost involved.” 

Sodium sulfate is a byproduct of many chemical processes beyond the battery industry as well. Aepnus sees its recycling technology as having potential applications in other areas of chemical manufacturing, such as textile processing or paint pigments production. 

“Electrolytic manufacturing is the key to decarbonizing chemical manufacturing broadly speaking,” said Hackl. “As the cost of green electrons decreases, we need to develop the technologies to put those electrons to work: not just store them so we can drive our cars and power or microwaves, but use them constructively in the manufacturing world we live in.”

No items found.