What happens to hybrid and EV car batteries?

Going green with battery recycling.


As policy makers around the globe continue to push for vehicles that run on something other than petroleum, the number of cars and trucks using electric-drive systems is expected to grow. Whatever the environmental upside, there's one potentially big downside, and that is: how to dispose of EV and hybrid batteries once they grow too old and feeble to store and deliver adequate power?

The automotive and recycling industries appear to be proactive on this issue. They're already planning ways to deal with tens of thousands of knackered nickel-metal hydride hybrid batteries from conventional hybrids and lethargic lithium-ion batteries from electric cars.

A Backlog Is Building

No one is quite sure when the need will arise. While there are more than 2 million conventional and plug-in hybrids and electric cars on the road in the U.S. alone, none have been around long enough to start contributing a meaningful flow of batteries to the recycling industry.

There are signs that the batteries in the very earliest Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrids are starting to go, but those cars were sold in relatively small numbers. Just 19,000 Insights and 33,000 Priuses were sold in the U.S. through the 2003 model year, when the first-generation Prius was retired. That's not enough to feed a commercial recycling industry.

Indeed, most hybrid batteries seem to be able to outlive the eight-year/100,000-mile warranties that they carried from the carmakers, and many battery and automotive industry insiders say there appears to be no reason that lithium-ion batteries can't last for 150,000 miles or more as well.

Prius Batteries First in Line

Nevertheless, the two recycling firms that are getting into advanced-technology automotive battery recycling in a big way both have started preparing for the day when an increasing volume of hybrid batteries starts flowing.

Mark Caffarey, executive vice president of North American operations for Belgium-based metals recycling giant Umicore, sees the day when companies like his will be handling battery packs from hundreds of thousands of hybrids and EVs each year. But for now he's waiting for batteries from the first-generation Prius to start arriving.

Until then, most of what's being done on the automotive advanced-battery recycling front involves pilot projects using test batteries, batteries reclaimed from wrecked vehicles and a few thousand hybrid and EV batteries that have failed for a variety of reasons other than normal lifetime degradation.

What Recycling Means for You

Recycling is an important aspect of the battery's journey, even though the lithium-ion batteries used in most EVs and plug-in hybrids and the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in most conventional hybrids are not considered toxic. Both types, unlike conventional 12V lead-acid car batteries, are safe for landfills.

But the world is running out of landfill space. It will be better for the environment and the economy if spent advanced-tech batteries are reduced to their components, which can be reused instead of being buried in trash heaps.

For owners of electric-drive vehicles, recycling is expected to be a painless — and even invisible — process. Automakers and the auto dismantling industry and its designated recyclers will handle the recycling. The car owner won't have to do anything except get the vehicle and its faltering battery to a dealer.

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