March 1, 2021

Fancy Batteries in Electric Cars Pose Recycling Challenges

Yet even as automakers vaunt the ways these cars can benefit the environment, they are divided over how best to handle the refuse: recycle or repurpose.

That is worrying some companies involved in “urban mining” — a voguish term that refers to extracting valuable metals from all kinds of discarded electronics, from power tools to mobile phones. They have already begun spending money to build an infrastructure to handle the flood of partly depleted battery packs that are expected to enter the waste stream; Frost Sullivan, a consulting firm, puts the number at about 500,000 a year by the early 2020s.

“There is no green car without green recycling,” said Ghislain Van Damme, a manager at Umicore, a company based here in Hoboken that is one of the world’s largest recyclers of precious and specialty metals from electronic waste.

Companies that fail to plan for recycling face “brand damage” at the very least, he said, as well as potential fines and legal action if the batteries end up being illegally incinerated or dumped in landfills. In many cases, automakers will be responsible for final disposal of the batteries — even if they did not actually manufacture them — because of stricter laws governing recycling, especially in Europe.

Any sense of urgency in developing recycling capacity has been dampened, however, by the cost factor. The newest, most-powerful lithium-based batteries are also less valuable to recycle than earlier ones.

Lithium is plentiful compared with the nickel and cobalt found in hybrid and all-electric car batteries developed earlier, even if the main sources of the metal, in countries like Chile and Bolivia, are far from auto production centers.

“You can count on a constant and growing thirst for metals including lithium,” said P.Aswin Kumar, an analyst with Frost Sullivan. “But lithium still costs about five times more to recycle than to mine, so environmental laws will drive recycling for now.”

Shoebox-size, lead-acid batteries have powered ignition and lighting in gasoline- or diesel-powered cars for decades. They already are widely recycled, mainly because lead is such a health hazard.

The batteries for hybrid and all-electric cars are far more powerful and much larger, with some weighing up to around 250 kilograms, or 550 pounds. They also can be the car’s most expensive component, mostly because of the complexity in making them, rather than the value of the materials.

Complicating the question of disposal, a large amount of energy remains stored even in partially discharged batteries. These could deliver harmful shocks and pose a serious fire hazard if mishandled.

For now, automakers are going their individual ways.

Toyota Motor, whose experience goes back to 1998, shortly after the introduction of the RAV4 all-electric vehicle, has established partnerships in Europe and the United States to recycle batteries, including from the hybrid Prius. This year, it began shipping some batteries from Prius models sold in the United States to Japan to take advantage of a more-efficient recycling process at home.

Honda Motor recycled nearly 500 batteries during 2009 from the electric hybrid models it began selling in Japan more than a decade ago. But it still is exploring ways to structure that part of its business as it rolls out models like the Insight and the CR-Z.

General Motors and Nissan Motor, whose Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are newer to the market, are taking a different tack. They have agreements with power companies to develop ways of reusing old batteries, perhaps for storing wind or solar energy during peak generating times for later use.

Bayerische Motoren Werke, known for its premium BMW line, still is carrying out research on whether to recycle or reuse the batteries from its Mini E, an all-electric car it began leasing on a limited basis in 2009.

Meanwhile, some governments have begun to get involved to ensure their car industries are not undermined by sourcing or safety issues.

In the United States, the Department of Energy has granted $9.5 million to Toxco to build a specialized recycling plant in Ohio for electric vehicle batteries. It is expected to begin operations next year, handling batteries from a variety of makes and models.

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