National Science Foundation Engines Development Award

Advancing the circular economy
for lithium batteries | Nevada

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Regional Innovation Engines program was authorized by the Administration and Congress in order to advance transdisciplinary, collaborative, use-inspired and translational research and technology development in key focus areas. The goals are to boost innovation capacity, create sustainable innovation ecosystems, and demonstrate inclusive economic growth. The NSF Engines Development Award provides $1 million for 24-months of activities that lay the groundwork for submitting a successful Type-2 proposal to launch a full-scale NSF Engine.

NSF Engines Development Award logo and NSF standard logo

Description of work

The NSF Engines Development Award: Advancing the circular economy for lithium batteries (NV), award number 2305697, envisions a region in which workforce and economic development practices, private-sector innovation, and use-inspired research are coordinated and aligned to support the circular lithium economy. Through its many academic, industry, and non-profit partners, the proposing team aims to pioneer a complete lithium supply chain, from resource management of critical materials, to the rejuvenation, repurposing, and recycling of lithium batteries, and to the reinvention of the future generations of batteries. This development award will enable the project leadership team to guide all regional partners and collaborators through a 24-month process of co-creation of ideas, strategies and innovations. Through these activities, the project leadership will build a diverse and inclusive innovation ecosystem that drives economic growth, workforce development, use-inspired research and development, and the translation of innovations to practice around the lithium lifecycle.

Four researchers working in a battery research labAt the core of our project is the inclusion of all voices in the conversation by removing every barrier to full and meaningful participation in the planning and implementation work necessary to secure our region’s economic prosperity. This development award will be used to ensure the communities that have been historically disadvantaged in our region are equitably represented and meaningfully included in all development activities. Historically disadvantaged groups within our region include Native American communities and businesses, Latinx communities and businesses, Black communities and businesses, economically disadvantaged communities, and others. The proposing team purposefully intertwines diversity, equity, inclusion and access (DEIA) priorities and goals into each of the thrusts to produce ideas and plans, and to identify needs and assets, that represent and benefit everyone in our region.

Expected outcomes

The work undertaken during the award period will result in millions of dollars of capital inflow per year from industry and government in the lithium sector; interim agreements solidified between core partners to carry out Type-2 activities; and alignment among partners on joint priorities and goals for a regional economy built around the circular economy of lithium.

Broader impacts

Lithium is a critical element that powers our society today and is necessary for our clean energy future. There is significant need not only to identify domestic sources of critical materials and to develop domestic processing capabilities, but also to advance recycling methods to reuse critical materials already in use. This NSF Engine development region – the state of Nevada – is uniquely suited to support America’s lithium independence because it contains the only operating lithium mine in the U.S., the largest lithium mine in North America under construction, and large sources of lithium in clay and brine throughout.

Battery experimental equipmentThe region became the first state to manufacture electric vehicle batteries with the Tesla Gigafactory and is now home to several next generation battery startups. Recently, the region has started to attract several recyclers and repurposers of lithium batteries that have begun commissioning large facilities. The broader impacts of the work undertaken through this NSF development award will support the move toward clean, reliable domestic energy production to fuel a prosperous American economy.

Key personnel

Project Director Mridul Gautam is vice president for research and innovation at the University of Nevada, Reno and President of the Nevada Research and Innovation Corporation. Under his leadership, the University of Nevada, Reno has grown its research expenditures to approximately $182 million, which places the University amongst the top 60 public universities nationwide on by per-capita research expenditures. With the establishment of the Nevada Center for Applied Research and the University of Nevada, Reno Innevation Center, the University is anchoring the vibrant innovation ecosystem in northern Nevada. The University continues to maintain its Carnegie® R1 classification for very high research activity, as well as the Carnegie® Engaged classification for community engagement.

Co-Project Director Karsten Heise is senior director for strategic programs and innovation with the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED). Heise serves as a liaison between Nevada industry and university/research communities. Under his leadership, the State of Nevada has so far allocated a cumulative total $37.5M in funding to advance innovative technologies, support technology start-ups, and support the translation of basic research to innovative industries and is committed to continue this effort since it began in 2013.

Co-Project Director Kimberley Harrell is dean of technical sciences at Truckee Meadows Community College. She oversees workforce training programs in advanced manufacturing, welding, machining, HVAC, refrigeration, automotive, diesel, construction management and architecture at the William N. Pennington Center of Applied Technology. With more than 25 years of higher education experience, her expertise lies in strategic asset mapping, regional coordination of workforce development and co-creating customized training solutions for local employers.

Co-Project Director Dev Chidambaram is director of the Nevada Institute for Sustainability and a Distinguished Nevada Regents Researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno. His research expertise is in electrochemical engineering and materials characterization. He has been the principal investigator on more than $13 million in research grants. Chidambaram designed and implemented the nation’s first minor in batteries technology at the University of Nevada, Reno.