Photo credit: General Motors Corporation
Photo credit: Nissan North America Inc.
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.
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.
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.
Both companies get batteries from automakers and dismantlers. Battery packs typically have a recycling-information sticker on them so wrecking yards, garages and car dealers can get instructions for directing "end-of-life" batteries to the proper recycling operation. Toyota even offers a $200-per-pack bounty to encourage dealers and others to turn in spent packs rather than discarding them.
Once the packs are at the proper distribution point, the recyclers break down their constituent parts to salvage any wiring, electrical components and plastics that can be separately recycled.
New Batteries and Stronger Concrete
Umicore does the initial component separation in Germany and soon will be doing it at a North American facility it is building in Maxton, North Carolina. The battery cells will continue to be shipped to Umicore's industrial-scale pilot recycling plant in Hoboken, Belgium.
That facility put the cells through what Caffarey calls "an ultra-high-temperature process" that separates their content into metal alloys and a slag that, when nickel-metal hydride batteries are being recycled, concentrates the rare earth elements they contain.
The recycler sells the metals to battery makers for reuse. The rare-earths concentrate from nickel-metal hydride batteries goes to a French partner, Rhodia, for reprocessing. Umicore sells the slag from lithium-ion batteries to cement makers, which use it as an aggregate that helps strengthen concrete.
The Future Approaches
At Toxco, the process also starts by gathering batteries at a variety of collection points from automakers and wrecking yards. The company sends the batteries to facilities in Trail, British Columbia, and Lancaster, Ohio, where they are flash-frozen to ensure that the lithium doesn't cause a fire when the cells are broken into. Then metal shredders tear them apart.
Toxco is increasing capacity at its Ohio facility under a $9.5-million federal grant it received in 2009. The additional space and new equipment will help the company improve the cost-effectiveness of lithium battery recycling, says Coy, the Kinsbursky executive.
It's all part of preparing for a future in which electric vehicles — and their batteries — abound and where "green vehicles" won't truly be realized unless there's green recycling as well.