What happens to hybrid and EV car batteries?

Going green with battery recycling.

Recycling is expected to help keep battery costs down because it will permit the reuse of the metals and rare-earth compounds that make these batteries work, which is cheaper than mining and processing all-new material. With lithium-ion batteries accounting for as much as half the cost of a new EV, reducing battery costs through recycling will go a long way toward making electric-drive vehicles competitive with conventional cars when it comes to price. Having a market for used batteries also will help prop up the resale value of electric-drive vehicles — a definite plus for consumers.

There also are societal benefits. Advanced battery recycling helps reduce CO2 emissions and energy use from processing new material. It also can help with energy security. Many of the critical materials used in these batteries come from other countries, and if the U.S. does switch to a heavily electrified transportation system, battery recycling will reduce our dependence on foreign suppliers.

Zero Landfill

The nickel-metal hydride batteries found in hybrid vehicles are basically "zero-landfill" products. Whatever can't be recycled is consumed in the recycling process, leaving no trash behind. The primary metals recovered are nickel, copper and iron. The principal rare earths are neodymium and lanthanum.

Lithium-ion batteries now are somewhere between 70 and 100 percent recyclable, depending on the particular chemistry of the batteries. There are about half a dozen in use and more are being developed. The bits that can't be recycled are mostly consumed as fuel in the furnaces that are used to melt down the metals, which include cobalt, copper, iron, nickel, manganese and, someday, lithium.

Recycling specialists say that as volume grows, it will become more economically feasible to recover some of the content now wasted that way. Lithium, for example, is so cheap that there's no economic case for recovering it from lithium-ion batteries right now, says Todd Coy, executive vice president of recycler Kinsbursky Brothers. The Southern California firm handles most North American advanced automotive battery recycling through a joint venture with longtime battery recycling firm Toxco.

Reuse Before Recycling

For lithium-ion batteries, there's a potential after-automotive use that can postpone destructive recycling for years. Even when an EV or hybrid battery can no longer hold and discharge sufficient electricity to power the car's motor, the pack can still carry a tremendous amount of juice. Battery manufacturers figure the packs will still be able to operate at about 80 percent of capacity when they have to be retired from automotive use. Auto companies are partnering with battery, recycling and electronics firms to figure out and develop post-automotive markets for lithium-ion battery packs.

For instance, several major power utilities are working with companies — including General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Nissan — to explore the use of the batteries for stationary storage of the power produced in off-peak periods by wind turbines and solar generation stations. Lithium-ion packs also are being tested as backup power storage systems for retail centers, restaurants and hospitals, as well as for residential solar systems.

GM and Nissan are particularly strong advocates of reuse. "We see these batteries as an asset to be leveraged," says Ken Srebnick, senior manager of corporate planning at Nissan North America.

Breaking Them Down

The Kinsbursky Brothers' Toxco operation appears to be the recycler most widely used by companies that sell hybrids and EVs in North America. Coy says it also receives batteries from carmakers in Europe. Umicore is the European leader and is expanding in the U.S.

Each operation uses a proprietary system and both now are concerned mainly with recycling nickel-metal hydride batteries. But both companies also are handling small volumes of lithium-ion packs as they work with automakers to develop the best recycling processes. Because of the slow sales pace for EVs and hybrid cars and trucks, they expect a commercially viable market to take at least a decade to develop.

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