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Updated: April 3, 2023 / 2023 Manufacturing Excellence Awards

Manufacturing awards: Yan Wang was promoting EV battery recycling before it was cool

A man wearing a white lab coat and safety goggles holds up a beaker Photos | Courtesy of Worcester Polytechnic Institute One of Yan Wang's key beliefs is university research must make its way into industry.

With the shift from gasoline-powered to electric vehicles well underway, manufacturers are thinking about batteries.

What can we do with the lithium-ion batteries used in EVs when they get worn out? And how can we ensure a good supply of the rare materials to make the batteries work, especially the materials only mined in other countries, often with troubling environmental and human costs? These are new concerns for many, but Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Yan Wang has been thinking about them for more than a decade.

Yan Wang, William Smith Foundation Dean's Professor at Worcester Polytechnic institute, co-founder of Ascend Elements, Inc. in Westborough and AM Batteries, Inc. of Chelmsford. He was born in Tianjin, China and currently lives in Acton. When asked "Why do you champion the manufacturing industry in the way you do?" Wang responded "Manufacturing is the way to convert fundamental science to real products. It can create jobs, recruit WPI students, and boost the local economy. This is my personal goal to make im
Yan Wang is a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and co-founder of Ascend Elements in Westborough and AM Batteries in Chelmsford.

Wang began his education in China, where students generally pick a career focus before starting their university education. He found the choice of what field to enter easy.

“In high school, I was interested in chemistry, and I’m also good at chemistry,” he said.

Wang went on to do post-doctoral research at MIT in Cambridge, where he learned about moving cutting-edge scientific findings from the lab to the factory.

“I was told by my postdoc advisor, ‘If you just publish papers in the battery field, that may not be good enough,’” he said.

Wang took that to heart, and in 2015 he and two colleagues founded Ascend Elements, now based in Westborough, to reclaim elements from discarded lithium-ion batteries and make them into new ones. As that company matured to the point where it is building nearly $2 billion worth of facilities in Georgia and Kentucky, he stepped back from its day-to-day operations, though he remains chief scientist and a member of the board of directors. He went on to co-found Chelmsford-based AM Batteries, which focuses on improving the sustainability of battery electrode manufacturing. He now serves as interim CEO there and has raised millions from venture capital firms and manufacturers. Now, the company is in the process of hiring a new CEO who can lead it in its next phase of development.

“I feel like now it’s beyond my skillset,” Wang said. “I’m willing to let others lead the company.”

Meanwhile, back at WPI, Wang works with upcoming researchers, who are poised to make their own marks on the industry.

“I enjoy working with my students, solving fundamental questions,” he said.

A man and woman in white lab coats laugh with Yan Wang, also in a white lab coat in a laboratory setting.
Yan Wang (right) works with students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he has spun off two companies.

Wang said he looks at his impact on the world – and his local corner of it – partly in terms of the new companies and new jobs he and his students can create. He’s especially happy to bring venture funds, which are often concentrated in the Boston area, to Worcester. At the same time, he finds himself thinking even bigger.

“Initially, as a young professor, I focused mainly on my own research,” he said. “Now it’s more big picture: thinking about what industries produce the most carbon dioxide, how they can lower emissions.”

2023 Manufacturing Excellence Awards

 

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