Battery recycling heats up with Ascend Elements' $542M Series D

Venture funding for battery recycling startups is popping off lately, and the latest to see the IRA-driven upside is Ascend Elements, which announced a massive $542 million in Series D funding on top of $480 million in earlier DoE grants.

The eight-year-old company recycles lithium batteries into black mass and produces cathode active materials (CAM) and precursor cathode active materials (PCAM). It's putting those hundreds of millions in recent funding into a manufacturing facility in Kentucky, where it aims to refine black mass into sustainable, battery-ready materials.

BlackRock-linked Decarbonization Partners led Ascend Elements' D round. Some other big names also chipped in, including funds managed by Singapore and Qatar, as well as climate-tech investor Fifth Wall. Though BlackRock markets itself as an environmentally conscious investor, the firm still pumps loads of cash into the fossil fuels industry.

"Recycling batteries [into black mass], quite frankly, is on the easy side," Ascend Elements CEO Mike O’Kronley said on Monday in a call with TechCrunch. "So, there are lots of companies that are jumping into battery recycling. What's challenging is to make the really high-value, battery-grade materials on the output side."

Ascend Elements tells TechCrunch that it already does this work out of pilot facilities in Massachusetts and Michigan. The company aims to churn out a lot more battery-ready materials (20 kilotons of PCAM per year) at its Kentucky plant, after it kicks off operations there around the end of 2024. Ascend Elements' current customers include Honda and SK Battery America.

Battery-recycling boom

In the U.S. in particular, VCs are handing over a whole mess of money to companies that ultimately play a role in turning spent batteries into new ones. Other deals this year, besides Ascend Elements' $542 million, include: Redwood Materials' $1 billion D round, Nth Cycle's targeted $50 million Series B and Green Li-ion's $20.5 million “pre-Series B." That's on top of a $192 million effort from the Energy Department to back battery recycling tech in the U.S., with the goal of limiting U.S. dependence on batteries produced in China.

The recent influx of deals calls to mind the climate-tech funding frenzy of 2021, but according to PitchBook data, global VC funding for battery-recycling firms is still a ways from its peak a couple years back. In Q3 2021, PitchBook tracked $2.5 billion in funding across nine deals. In the same quarter this year (with a few weeks remaining), the data firm recorded $1.5 billion in funding across seven deals.