Aqua Metals: How This Company Is Advancing Sustainable Lithium Battery And Clean Metals Recycling In A $5+ Billion Market

By Amit Chowdhry • Oct 26, 2023

Aqua Metals is a company that is pioneering sustainable lithium battery and clean metals recycling, creating a low-carbon, circular supply chain for critical minerals. Pulse 2.0 interviewed Aqua Metals CFO Judd Merrill to learn more about the company. 

Judd Merrill’s Background

Merrill got his start at Deloitte & Touche, where he gained invaluable experience in financial operations and oversight. Merrill said:

“Prior to joining Aqua Metals in 2018, much of my experience was in the mining industry, including international mineral exploration and the gold sector.”

“I’ve had a variety of financial roles, including overseeing SEC compliance and budget management for Klondex Mines, serving as controller for Fronteer Gold, and as CFO and Corporate Secretary at Comstock Mining.”

“In my current role as Chief Financial Officer at Aqua Metals, I’ve been able to leverage my knowledge of the mining and minerals industry as well as my broader financial and accounting skill set. Working with start-up companies and guiding them through growth is my area of expertise, and I was very impressed by the Aqua Metals team, technology, and strategy for expansion.”

“Aqua Metals has proven to be a tremendous opportunity to bring my skills and enjoyment of working with fast-paced, early-stage companies in the metals sector. But what’s truly unique is simultaneously playing a role in reducing carbon emissions and providing a non-polluting metals recycling solution as we work toward an electrified future to help curb climate change.”

“As the CFO of Aqua Metals, my primary responsibilities encompass overseeing the company’s financial operations and strategy. This includes financial planning and analysis, risk management, capital allocation, and ensuring the integrity of our financial reporting. Aqua Metals is traded on the NASDAQ, and there are a wide range of responsibilities related to reporting, controls, and investor relations that I lead for our executive team.”

“Additionally, I collaborate closely with other senior leaders to align financial strategies with organizational objectives, ensuring we deliver value to our shareholders while fostering sustainable growth.”

Aqua Metals Pilot Facility

Aqua Metals Milestone

What would you say has been a major milestone for Aqua Metals? Merrill shared:

“It’s been a big year filled with major milestones! In recent months, we have advanced our core recycling technology; announced innovative new partnerships; secured a multi-year, diverse supply of raw materials; started inking our first global licensing deal; and raised $25 million in new operating capital.”

“Altogether, 2023 has been transformative for Aqua Metals as we move from research and development of our cutting-edge technology to operating the first truly sustainable lithium battery recycling facility. We are also seeing our first revenues from our technology and the high-purity recycled metals we recover.”

“We are at a pivotal moment in our evolution and developing the foundation for what makes a sustainable lithium battery recycling company that will ultimately transform the electrification and energy storage industry.”

Core Products

What are the company’s core products and features? Merrill explained:

“Aqua Metals’ patented AquaRefining metals recycling technology is the first truly sustainable way to recover the valuable critical minerals that make up lithium-ion batteries. We do this by electrifying the recycling process – using clean electricity to extract metals, instead of polluting furnaces or trainloads of chemicals.”

“AquaRefining is a step-change in creating a circular supply chain, eliminating the carbon pollution and untenable chemical waste typical of recycling technology today. In the most straightforward terms, our technology is an innovative application of electroplating, whereby we use electricity to selectively ‘attract’ valuable metals like nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese from the ground-up remains of retired batteries.”

“We’ve proven that we can scale this modular process and are rapidly deploying our first commercial-scale AquaRefining facility at a five-acre campus in Tahoe-Reno.”

Evolution Of Aqua Metals’ Technology

How has the company’s technology evolved since launching? Merrill noted:

“Aqua Metals’ journey of technological evolution has been both profound and purpose driven. We originally commenced our operations on lead acid battery recycling, leveraging AquaRefining to sustainably recover materials from spent lead acid batteries.”

“However, entrenched industry infrastructure and significant capital investments in conventional pyrometallurgy recycling created a significant challenge. Without compelling regulatory interventions, there was no impetus for transition to greener alternatives than smelting. Having experience in this area helped Aqua Metals recognize that a similar lock-in effect could undermine the future of the burgeoning lithium battery recycling sector, which motivated us to pivot our approach.”

“Furthermore, we’ve refined our technology to meet the unique chemical and purity specifications demanded by various customers. Whether it is battery-grade lithium hydroxide or lithium carbonate, or London Metals Exchange grade pure nickel and cobalt, Lithium AquaRefining has proven very adaptable to the battery industry’s needs. This evolution underscores our commitment not just to innovation, but to ensuring that our technology remains at the forefront of sustainable battery recycling.”


After asking Merrill about funding and revenue, Merrill pointed out: 

“Most recently, we formed a strategic partnership with Yulho Materials and their company’s equity investment in Aqua Metals. Yulho is the leading South Korea-based battery materials processor and has established relationships with the country’s leading EV and battery companies.” 

“The funding provided by Yulho will help to accelerate our commercial deployment here in the United States, but also will be Aqua Metals’ first time licensing our technology for their use in South Korea. Bringing this deal to fruition was a monumental step for the company, and involved months of validation, review, and negotiations around all the specific terms.”

 “We expect to grant Yulho a license to process up to 100,000 tonnes of ‘black mass’ – the industry term for the ground-up mixture of valuable metals from batteries – per year using AquaRefining. With each tonne of material processed being worth roughly $20,000 in recovered materials, the companies would share in more than $2B in gross revenue per year once fully realized.”

“For our US operations, reaching commercial scale is our most critical near-term priority. We are upfitting and building a five-acre recycling campus where we plan to process more than 10,000 tonnes per year onsite. It is the first of multiple facilities that we expect to house AquaRefineries in the coming years – and these facilities represent our core revenue potential and growth opportunity in the future.”

“It is very exciting to be working with a diverse array of funding sources and an ever-growing roster of industry-leading battery and critical minerals companies to create innovative partnerships and novel deal structures in this emerging industry.”

Total Addressable Market

What total addressable market (TAM) size is the company pursuing? Merrill assessed:

“The global market for lithium-ion batteries is accelerating at a meteoric pace, with demand for new electric vehicles leading the way.”

“Along with that, the availability of end-of-life batteries and manufacturing scrap materials is quickly rising. The global lithium battery recycling market is roughly $5 billion today and is expected to grow five-fold to nearly $25 billion in 2030. The rapid domestic scale-up of battery manufacturing will serve as a primary source of recyclable material for the coming years.”

“Aqua Metals is well-positioned to capture a significant portion of that market share in the near term as we rapidly expand our own capacity. As climate regulations tighten and incentives for low-carbon battery materials continue to grow, we believe our patented technology will enable us to surpass competing solutions.”

Differentiation From The Competition

What differentiates the company from its competition? Merrill affirmed:

“What truly distinguishes Aqua Metals from its competition is our innovative approach to sustainable battery recycling. While many companies in the industry resort to traditional smelting or intensive chemical methods that generate pollution and environmental hazards, our process is a game-changer. We employ an environmentally friendly electrochemical process that effectively recovers valuable metals from lithium batteries, minimizing carbon emissions and chemical waste.”

“One of our key strengths lies in our strategic partnerships. These partnerships extend beyond a transactional approach; they are about combining forces, leveraging shared expertise, and expanding our reach. Our strategic partners underscore our commitment to environmental sustainability and innovation. By engaging with industry leaders, like our partners 6K Energy, Yulho Materials, and Dragonfly Energy, we can establish a circular supply chain, ensuring our recycled materials find their way back into new battery production, reducing the need for mining and mitigating climate emissions.”

“As regulatory standards inevitably tighten around emissions and waste pollution, Aqua Metals is uniquely positioned to excel. Our low-carbon process already surpasses current environmental requirements, and we are confident that we’ll continue to exceed upcoming standards. This places us at the forefront of a more sustainable future. “

“By consistently staying ahead of the industry, we’re poised to lead the charge in transforming the lithium battery recycling landscape, setting new benchmarks for sustainability and responsible resource management.”

Future Company Goals

What are some of the company’s future goals? Merrill revealed: 

“Our primary goals include:

1.) Expansion of Recycling Facilities: Aqua Metals aims to establish and expand its commercial-scale recycling facilities in key locations, enabling the company to process larger quantities of lithium battery materials and meet the growing demand for sustainable battery recycling solutions.

2.) Diversification of Partnerships: Building on the success of our strategic partnerships, Aqua Metals plans to announce new collaborations with additional industry leaders, creating a global network that ensures a sustainable end market for our recycled materials and positions the company as a leading player in the circular economy of lithium batteries.

3.) Continuous Technological Advancement: We’re committed to ongoing research and development to enhance the efficiency and environmental sustainability of its AquaRefining technology. We always aim to stay ahead of evolving regulatory standards and industry trends, ensuring our solutions remain at the forefront of innovation in the lithium battery recycling sector.”

Additional Thoughts About The Industry

What is something even someone from finance might not anticipate about the industry and what you’re doing? Merrill concluded:

“Something really interesting you might not immediately consider when thinking about battery recycling is the opportunity and necessity of paying attention to pricing arbitrage.”

“When we purchase black mass, we pay based on the metals content, at a fraction of the market value in its pure form. The exact payment terms account for various factors, but one of them is typically the spot price for those metals at the London Metals Exchange or somewhere like FastMarkets.”

“Purchased black mass then goes through our innovative recycling process. When enough is gathered to fulfill a shipment, and if not contracted, payment terms would be calculated based on spot price and purity level.”

“As we have seen in recent years, the prices for nickel, cobalt, lithium, and even copper can be volatile, and surging demand for battery metals foretells more price spikes and valleys in the future. The variance in metals pricing is both a manageable risk and an opportunity when it comes to battery recycling.”