Metals for Electric Vehicle Batteries Remain a Challenge; Nth Cycle Delivers a Domestic Recycling Solution 

Heather Miller Heather Miller August 16, 2023

5 min read

See how Nth Cycle uses Fusion 360 to develop metal-isolating cells that produce a clean, cost-efficient supply chain of nickel and cobalt.

From consumer demand to government incentives and major automaker investments, the explosive growth of electric vehicles is undeniable. But it’s still a bumpy road for the industry.  

One core component of this sustainable transportation movement remains challenging: the battery. Critical metals still need to be sourced and extracted from the earth for electric vehicles to run. Lithium-ion batteries require five critical metals: lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite.  

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Image courtesy of Nth Cycle.

The recycling of batteries is in a nascent stage, and sourcing these metals isn’t easy. They are finite, located in pockets of the world prone to supply chain disruptions, and require significant mining and refining investments. And it’s not just batteries for electric vehicles. Harnessing renewable energies such as solar panels and windmills also requires mining huge quantities of metals.  

Nth Cycle believes all the critical metals needed for the energy transition are already in circulation today. With support from the Autodesk Foundation and Autodesk’s Technology Impact Program, Nth Cycle is taking an innovative, sustainable, and scientific approach with Fusion 360 at the core of its development process. They’ve created a new solution that allows miners to be more sustainable and provides a reliable domestic source of metals to fuel the growth of a clean energy transition. 

Extracting precious metals from waste

Nth Cycle’s approach is to use what we already have and work with battery recyclers, scrappers, refiners, and miners to source metals for refining. This could be anything from recycled batteries to mining and refinery waste, end-of-life electronics, e-waste, industrial scrap, and more. Recently, Nth Cycle opened its first nickel and cobalt production facility in Fairfield, Ohio.  

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Image courtesy of Nth Cycle.

The facility will use Nth Cycle’s patented electro-extraction processer, the “OYSTER,” to recover the metals through its Mixed Hydroxide Precipitate (MHP) product. It’s all done with low energy using just electricity and water, producing a higher-purity MHP with a combined nickel and cobalt content of 55-60% (dry basis) versus the typical 30-40% nickel and only 1-6% cobalt available today.  

“As the world becomes increasingly reliant on the critical metals that are the backbone of an electrified economy, it’s clear the sourcing of those materials must be as clean and efficient as the future we imagine,” says Megan O’Connor, co-founder and CEO, Nth Cycle. “A clean, unfettered, and cost-efficient supply chain of nickel and cobalt, or MHP, not only accelerates our path to that future, but it establishes the U.S. as a global leader in that movement.” 

Designing and prototyping cells for the OYSTER with Fusion 360

Nth Cycle’s electro-extraction process relies on individual cells that help in the separation process to isolate metals. The Fairfield, Ohio facility will include 142 cells within the OYSTER processor. “Our core-tech cells are where the magic happens for the electrolytic chemical process,” says Joshua Gervais, mechanical engineer, Nth Cycle. 

Off-the-shelf plastic frames house the cell where the design and IP truly reside. The cells are made from PVC and include the hardware, anode, cathode, and other advanced manufacturing methods. Throughout the design process, the team is constantly prototyping and testing. With Autodesk Fusion 360, they can keep the design evolution moving quickly. 

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The current Nth Cycle lab layout in Fusion 360. The team designed the frame on the left to hold several core-tech cells, and the equipment on the right is used to operate the OYSTER. Image courtesy of Nth Cycle.

“Fusion 360 is important for us because it enables us to iterate everything in-house,” Gervais says. “We use the Machining Extension to create all the tool paths and cut prototypes with our CNC machine. It’s easy to do and keeps all the associated geometry if I change something in the model.” 

“Since we started the in-house use of a CNC machine with Fusion 360 and the Machining Extension, our iterative time has been slashed,” he continues. “We can quickly tool it, run it, see if it works, make changes, and start over again. We’ve seen a 7–10 week reduction in lead time for most components. It’s one of the huge advantages of Fusion 360 for us.” 

Internal flow geometry in the cell is also crucial to extract the metals successfully. With Autodesk CFD and the help of Autodesk training partner Symetri, Nth Cycle discovered how to refine flow geometries and troubleshoot issues with different fluids mixing in the wrong areas of the cell. 

“The fact that Fusion 360 is so easy to learn and pick up is super advantageous. I’ve worked with other programs and there were intensive training processes to onboard with the software alone. With Fusion 360, you can watch a couple tutorials and have it nailed. The rest of the learning revolves around the type of product you want to make.” 

—Joshua Gervais, Mechanical Engineer, Nth Cycle

Developing a “divide and conquer” iterative process

The Nth Cycle team approaches their design iteration with what they call “feature tests,” where one aspect of the cell is isolated to test any number of problems. “The problems that we’re trying to test are complicated, numerous, and change every week,” Gervais says.  

Several of these feature tests may happen simultaneously. You can call it a “divide and conquer” iterative process. They don’t need to prototype an entirely new version of the cell every time they want to test or change one thing. Once a full cell lifecycle rolls around, there are several improvements. 

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Image courtesy of Nth Cycle.

With each new cycle, Gervais can continually update the Fusion 360 model, share it with vendors and manufacturers to confirm if it’s manufacturable, and return to the team with any potential issues to address.  

“One of the biggest challenges we face as a company is manufacturing,” Gervais says. “The cell is a very complicated environment requiring advanced materials and fabrication processes. We can save a lot of time by quickly mocking up a new 3D model in Fusion 360, sharing it with vendors, and taking a step closer to a mature design.”
 

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