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.