Aqua Metals, the US start-up which aims to commercialise a water-based process for recycling lead-acid batteries, is preparing for “explosive growth in 2018”.
But chairman and CEO Dr Stephen Clarke is already rethinking plans to roll out the company’s AquaRefineries and is retrofitting improvements to the first facility in Nevada before rolling out the technology.
Dr Clarke said in a conference call to investors that the goal for this year is to prepare “for an explosive build-out both of our own facilities and for our strategic partners”.
He added, “To be ready for explosive growth in 2018, we want the flexibility to test and validate multiple potential improvements by the end of this year. So we may choose to temporarily suspend production to support this.”
The 130,000 square foot facility in Nevada’s Tahoe Reno Industrial Complex, AquaRefinery 1, has begun breaking and separating used car batteries supplied by Johnson Controls.
The plastic and the lead metallic retrieved are being sold, the lead going back to Johnson Controls which invested $10.6 million in the company when it purchased approximately 5% of the shares.
Dr Clarke said the aim for AquaRefinery 1 is to salvage 120 tonnes of lead a day by the end of the year and 160 from 300 tonnes of dead batteries in 2018. This, he said, would mean “aggressively scaling up operations and ramping our capacity” to have 16 AquaRefining modules on-site in Nevada this year and 32 next year.
At the moment, module 1 is operating, modules 2 to 4 are on-site and in start-up mode and modules 5 to 16 are being updated to latest specifications and “will be installed over the coming weeks and months”.
No ingots have been produced yet but Dr Clarke said the process “is currently being commissioned”. Of the 120 tonnes a day goal, he expects 80 to come from the “industry-leading level” breaking department (set up in cooperation with Wirtz Engineering) and 40 to come from the AquaRefinery.
The CEO calculated that an output of 120 to 160 tonnes a day represents “about $100 million to $120 million a year of revenue”.
Dr Clarke also confirmed the company, which reported a loss of $4.9 million in its first quarter of 2017, has ditched its original plan to build a large number of small plants across the US that would turn out 40 to 80 tonnes of lead a day. He explained that was the idea when “we were a small start-up company without any partners and we had very limited certainty of supply (of used batteries).”
The current plan, he said, is “a smaller number of clusters centred on logistic nodes”. Five AquaRefineries with a total of 160 modules in place, he figures, could turn out 800 tonnes of lead a day. That, he said, would give Aqua Metals “a combined potential annual revenue of $500 million to $600 million a year”.
He said, “That's the level of scale that I still look at and have to pinch myself. It's far beyond anything that any of us that founded Aqua Metals four years ago thought we'd be talking about in 2017.”
Dr Clarke expects to purchase the land for at least one of the new sites this year. He confirmed, “We have made location choices for two nodes and we are discussing land for one of those.”
At a later stage he hopes to take the technology to China and Europe, and to install it at one of Johnson Controls’ facilities.