They’re the answer to all our problems: a clean and efficient and quiet way to power our burgeoning crop of electric vehicles. But then they die.

Containing hundreds of cells and sometimes weighing around 1,000 pounds, lithium-ion batteries represent both an indispensable technology and a potentially horrendous environmental burden.

In Port Coquitlam, a new start-up is looking to shoulder a bit of that burden.

Founded by a quartet of Simon Fraser University engineering students in 2020, Moment Energy has got a foothold in the fledgling industry of battery repurposing.

Phantom, and a menace

An early effort to building an electric race car evolved into a business. photo supplied Moment Energy

Friends Edward Chiang, Sumreen Rattan, Gurmesh Sidhu and Gabriel Soares had formed Team Phantom. The mission before them was to build an electric race car from scratch, Rattan recalls.

As they tossed ideas back and forth, they turned their attention to the number of EVs whispering along Canada’s highways.

image Statistics Canada

In the first half of 2021, 81,657 new EVs were registered in Canada, including hybrids and battery electric vehicles. That figure is more than double the amount of registrations from the same period in 2020 and four times the number from the same stretch in 2017, according to Statistics Canada.

Amid that growth, the first generation of Teslas, LEAFs and Volts were all approaching the 10-year-mark, leading to a spike in battery retirements.

So, what would happen to the coming crop of retirees?

In Hong Kong, a competition was held inviting university teams to pitch their ideas on handling retired EV batteries.

“That’s kind of where the idea was planted,” Rattan says.

The team ended up missing out on the Hong Kong contest (“We were submitting on Vancouver time,” Rattan admits) but they stayed with the idea.

“We realized that it was going to be a big problem in the future,” Rattan said. “That’s why we decided to go into the business.”

By one projection, there will be between 148- and 230-million EVs whispering down highways across the world by the end of the decade.

In addition to office space and mentorship, the team received $10,000 over two semesters to develop their business through an SFU entrepreneurship co-op program.

After starting in a garage in Surrey, the founders opted to move operations to the Tri-Cities.

“Port Coquitlam made the most sense, both in terms of availability [and] pricing,” Rattan said.

With 15 employees and plans to hire 10 engineers, the company is looking to expand, according to Rattan.

The team is looking for new engineers. photo supplied

“We’re quickly outgrowing our space,” she said.

Recently, the company got a $3.5-million boost as the company secured seed funding in their efforts to create sustainable energy storage systems out of old EV batteries.

The life of a dying battery

When the time comes that the Prius, Tesla, Bolt, Leaf or Ioniq have lost their zip, the first stop for a battery is the dealership.

Generally, the dealership sends the battery to the automaker. The automaker – via roadways or ocean freighters – sends the batteries to Moment Energy. At a rate that ranges from $5 to 30 cents per kilogram, 41 percent of the total cost of recycling a battery is spent on transportation.

“Every auto manufacturer does it a little bit differently,” Rattan said, explaining some automakers cover transportation costs and some don’t.

After arriving at Moment Energy’s facility on Broadway Street just off the Mary Hill Bypass.

“If it’s a repurposable battery then we would take it,” Rattan said.

While all batteries should be recycled eventually, part of Moment Energy’s mantra is ensuring no battery is prematurely recycled, Rattan explained.

“People tend to confuse repurposing and recycling. Our goal is to make sure batteries go through both.”

Finding a repurpose

Some recycling methods involve cranking up the heat and employing smelting procedures to recover cobalt and nickel. Hydrometallurgy uses a solution to recover metals, ideally avoiding soil and water pollution in the process, according to a South China Morning Post article.

After testing the battery and monitoring it for potential faults, the team moves on to the harvest phase.

“[We] break it down to the level where we can actually use them in our applications,” Rattan said. “We work at the module level and then we stack up these batteries, connect these modules together and deploy them in our systems.”

Those systems are intended to help homeowners in far-flung locations reduce their diesel dependency, Rattan said.

The company has three pilot projects: one in Manitoba, one in Alberta, and one on Quadra Island, according to Rattan.

“They were pretty reliant on diesel generators before we came in and installed our battery systems which is basically allowing them to reduce how often they turn on the generator but also lets them store solar energy in our batteries during the day.”