Industry Market Trends

Will Electric Vehicles Hurt the Auto Industry's Recycling?

Apr 18, 2013

A lithium-ion battery from a Nissan Leaf. Credit: Nissan North America. A lithium-ion battery from a Nissan Leaf. Credit: Nissan North America.

Which industry is among the best at recycling? You probably wouldn't guess "automotive." But it's true.

Few industries do better when it comes to recycling their products. According to Fortune, the Automotive Recycler's Association (which Fortune notes "has been around since the 1940s")  recently released a report finding that "roughly 86 percent of the material components of U.S. cars are recycled or reused after those cars are off the road."

That's a recycling/reusing record any industry would be proud of.

And now that the automotive industry is getting serious about producing electric vehicles, which some people consider greener than conventional cars, their recycling will improve even more, right?

We'll see. The fact is, so-called "green" cars are threatening the auto industry's smooth recycling record.

As Fortune writes, "materials used to build cars that burn alternative fuel might complicate the recycling process." They quote Andrew Wertkin, the chief technology officer at PTC, a technology company that helps clients manage the lifecycles of their products, as saying "Hybrid fuel cells or any non-fossil fuel vehicles are way more difficult to recycle and reuse and reclaim, and have many more potentially toxic substances."

Just like the paradox that electric cars might actually burn more fossil fuels than conventional cars, depending on how the electricity they use is generated, electric cars are also less easily recyclable than old gas guzzlers.

In 2011 The New York Times wrote that the batteries in electric cars, obviously the most important component separating them from their gas-powered brethren, can't be handled via the recycling processes already used by auto manufacturers.

Get The Lead Out? Easy.

Your standard car battery has a lot of lead in it, and the automotive industry knows what to do with them. They're commonly recycled, keeping the lead out of the ecosystem. But EV batteries are hugely more complex to build -- and just huger overall. Whereas a normal battery is about as big as a breadbox, EV batteries can weigh up to 550 pounds -- and require many more ingredients, further complicating the recycling process.

So you can't just start shipping EV batteries to the same folks who handle your conventional car batteries. It would be like putting an order for Chateaubriand at your local deli. And since the technology is still so new, there are relatively few EV batteries that have even needed to be dealt with. Hey, most Priuses are still on the road.

Further complicating efforts to find a recycling solution quickly is the fact that with standard technology, it's about five times more expensive for EV battery producers to use recycled lithium, the major metal component of EV batteries, than it is to use mined lithium. When lithium is recycled, it is usually sold to other users, such as construction companies.

Ironically, the fact that EV batteries, unlike conventional car batteries, are non-toxic and safe for landfills further reduces the urgency in recycling.

Get Ready For Lots of Electric Car Batteries.

What nobody seems to doubt is that there will be a need for EV battery recycling soon: The Times says Frost & Sullivan, a consulting firm, estimates there will be about 500,000 batteries a year in need of recycling by the early 2020s.

A Nickle-metal hydride battery common to hybrid vehicles. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. A Nickle-metal hydride battery common to hybrid vehicles. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

They're certainly capable of being recycled. Car site says nickel-metal hydride batteries used by hybrid cars are basically "zero-landfill" products, providing recyclable nickel, copper, iron, neodymium and lanthanum, and lithium-ion batteries "now are somewhere between 70 and 100 percent recyclable."

What's needed is an industry capable of recycling EV batteries -- as well as incentive to do so.

In Europe they're taking care of the incentive part the EU way, by passing rafts of laws simply demanding that producers figure out a way to recycle EV batteries. In the U.S., private industry is spitballing creative ideas.

Recycle? How About Reuse?

The summer 2012 edition of Green Car Journal mentions three such initiatives, which all revolve around not taking the batteries apart and reusing components, but finding ways to use the thing itself.

Nissan North America, power-transmission equipment manufacturer ABB, Sumitomo Corp. of America, and 4R Energy Corp. are thinking of using spent lithium-ion batteries "for energy storage by utility companies and as community power sources," since as the Journal says, "a 50 kilowatt-hour battery storage prototype now under development could power 15 homes for two hours."

General Motors and ABB are considering applications for the Chevy Volt's 16 kW-hr lithium-ion battery pack "for electrical grid storage and grid load leveling, including use with intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar."

And Duke Energy, working with ITOCHU Corp., is looking for ways to use the lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries in Duke's fleet of 80 Think City plug-ins [small EVs], "so a ready-made supply will be available some years down the road."

Ensuring A Reliable Supply of Lithium.

But we shouldn't give up on recycling lithium. According to industry journal Waste Management World, most of the world's supply of lithium comes from Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, which are not known for having the world's most stable governments. Disruptions to the supply could have devastating effects on EV battery producers.

Some EVs use newer nickel-metal hydride batteries. Honda announced last month that company officials are claiming the development of a process to reuse rare earth metals "extracted from nickle-metal hydride batteries in the creation of new nickel-metal hydride batteries."

The process, as described by clean energy site CleanTechnica, involves "applying molten salt electrolysis to the oxide from the battery, allowing them to extract metallised rare earth that can be used directly as negative-electrode materials for nickel-metal hydride batteries." Honda officials said they can get as much as 80 percent of all the reusable rare earth metals out of batteries this way.

Specialization Is The Way To Go.

Given the highly specialized nature of lithium recycling, Waste Management World says that in its view, "specialised processes and dedicated small scale recycling plants closer to vehicle manufacturers are likely to be the trend in the future," instead of today's automotive recycling industry, which can use large centralized recycling centers.

And as WMW notes, long-term financial investment is needed for developing specialized waste disposal services. As it's such a new market, "the specific impacts and overall profitability of these investments are unknown and thereby create ambiguity and uncertainty about making such commitments," not to mention "lack of standardization in battery chemistries and changing landscape with respect to different elements under research for battery production other than lithium."

And words like "changing" and "unknown" don't encourage much long-term capital commitment today, especially coupled with an uncertain market -- so few EV batteries have come in for recycling so far that nobody knows what will happen when the numbers increase.

In fact, WMW says, there is currently "no main recycling infrastructure in the world that treats only automotive Li-ion batteries." Some places are being developed, but it's still too uncertain a field to attract the large-scale investment that will be needed to handle the demand which will most likely be coming.