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There is no green car without green recycling – but where’s the profit?

Fancy Batteries in Electric Cars Pose Recycling Challenges
With fleets of electric cars starting to hit the roads, the next big mother lode for salvage companies is expected to be the expensive batteries that power them.

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. 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 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 about 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 those used in 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 there.

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, continues to carry 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 that 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.

Another pilot plant being built in the German state of Lower Saxony is expected to open at the end of this month. The German government gave Chemetall, which is part of a consortium called LithoRec that includes Volkswagen and its Audi unit, (EURO)5.7 million, or $8.2 million, of the (EURO)14.3 million cost.

The British government granted £500,000, or $813,000, this year for a similar project to a group of companies including Axeon, which makes lithium-based car batteries.

Such recycling ”is entirely nonexistent in the U.K. at the moment,” said Lawrence Berns, the chief executive of Axeon.

In Belgium, Umicore plans a formal opening for a (EURO)25 million plant in September in Hoboken, just outside of Antwerp, that can recover nearly all of the elements packed inside electric and hybrid car batteries, including cobalt, nickel, lithium and even rare earths like neodymium.

The plant uses intense heat – more than 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,370 Fahrenheit) – to strip away plastic coatings and creates a plasma, or ultrahigh-temperature gas, to separate metals and other materials.

The process yields tree-trunk-size chunks of gnarled metal alloy, some weighing more than 2,000 kilograms.

Umicore refines those chunks to create metals for resale to manufacturers of car batteries, wind turbines and other high-technology products.

It also recovers a gravelly substance, or slag, that Rhodia, a French chemical company, refines for rare earths like neodymium. Given the recent restrictions by China on exporting such materials, more companies are looking at doing the same.

Mr. Van Damme said the Umicore plant’s design could be enlarged to handle more than a million car batteries each year; the current capacity is 150,000.

Even before the official inauguration, it has recycled some batteries from the Prius, mostly from models that were involved in accidents or scrapped early. Honda said that Umicore was ”a serious option” for its future recycling plans.

But, so far, the only car company that has announced a deal with Umicore is Tesla Motors, of Palo Alto, California, whose electric roadsters start at more than $100,000. Tesla will pay to recycle its battery packs from models sold in Europe after seven to 10 years on the road. The final cost to Tesla would depend partly on the market value of the metals recovered by Umicore.

Tesla said that it was also working with Toxco in the United States.

Some manufacturers, like G.M. and Nissan, are focused on deferring recycling for as long as possible. They estimate that even at the end of their motoring life, the batteries should still be able to hold about 70 percent of the power of a new one.

Nissan has formed a joint venture called 4R Energy with Sumitomo, a Japanese conglomerate, aimed at using the old batteries for storing energy from renewable energy sources like wind and solar and for backup power supplies in emergencies.

It might be possible to ”make recycling a profitable business in the future,” said Takashi Sakagami, the president of 4R Energy.

Similarly, G.M. is working with ABB, a Swiss engineering company, to identify ways to use old Chevrolet Volt batteries as backup power sources in the event of power failures, and to improve reliability of electricity grids.

Even after 10 years of driving, a ”second life” of 20 years for the battery could be viable, said Pablo Valencia, a senior manager at G.M.

And afterward?

”We’re still working on that, so stay tuned,” he said.

BY JAMES KANTER, The International Herald Tribune