Lead-acid batteries, the kind found in traditional gasoline-powered vehicles, top the list of the most highly recycled consumer products, according to Johnson Controls. Approximately 97 per cent of all lead-acid batteries are recycled each year — nearly double the rate of aluminum cans (49 per cent) and more than twice that of paper (45 per cent). Even scrap steel falls well short of the recycling standard set by lead-acid batteries: the Steel Recycling Institute reported a 78.2 per cent steel recycling rate for 2007.
Although there’s a well-established infrastructure in place for lead-acid battery recycling, the same cannot be said of large-format lithium-ion batteries, which are expected to soon become the dominant type of battery used in hybrid and electric vehicles. (Small lithium batteries are widely used now in consumer electronics devices.) Currently, most hybrid and electric vehicles on the road use nickel-metal hydride batteries, but the technology advantages of lithium batteries are likely to make them the preferred type for hybrid and electric vehicles. For example, lithium batteries can be lighter and smaller than nickel-metal hydride batteries, while providing more energy and power.
Toxco to the rescue
Right now, there are no designated recycling facilities in the US for the type of lithium batteries that will be used in hybrid and electric vehicles. That is about to change, however, as Californiabased battery recycler Toxco was recently granted $9.5 million by the US Department of Energy to construct the nation’s first lithium battery recycling plant. This facility will be built at Toxco’s existing Lancaster, Ohio plant which already processes nickel-metal hydride batteries as well as lead-acid batteries. Toxco plans to use the DOE grant to transfer its existing lithium battery recycling technology, now used at its Trail, British Columbia recycling facility, to the Lancaster site and adapt it for vehicle batteries.
The process for recycling lithium batteries is actually quite complex, involving a number of technical steps (though most of them are automated). When batteries arrive at Toxco’s Trail facility, any residual electric energy from them must be removed first since lithium can be explosive at room temperature. To do this, Toxco immerses the batteries in liquid nitrogen, cooling them to -325 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, lithium “is rendered relatively inert,” according to the company. Once that’s done, the batteries can be safely shredded so that key metals like aluminum, copper, and steel can easily be separated and collected for sale. In addition, the “lithium components are separated and converted to lithium carbonate for resale,” Toxco states.
Finally, Toxco recovers nonhazardous materials like the plastic casings and other miscellaneous components for appropriate recycling or scrapping.
A future growth opportunity
As it stands now, there’s little market for lithium battery recycling, since the small-size lithium batteries typically used contain little lithium. Moreover, lithium is not an expensive metal, selling for just a few dollars a pound. However, as automakers switch to lithium technology and hybrid vehicle adoption continues to increase, many believe that lithium pricing will increase, perhaps substantially so depending on the demand for hybrid vehicles. If this occurs, the economics of lithium battery recycling should become more favorable. Moreover, there’s clearly going to be a sizeable recycling opportunity for the nickel and cobalt metals that are also used in lithium batteries. These metals are (today) considerably more valuable than lithium and already widely recycled because of their value.
As for company involvement in this emerging area of the recycling industry, Toxco is expanding its lithium battery recycling technology to the United States. Overseas, Umicore recycles a limited number of lithium-ion batteries at a pilot plant in Sweden. Meanwhile, two Japanese companies, Nippon Mining & Metals Co. and GS Yuasa, “each plan to start collecting lithium ion batteries from scrapped electric and hybrid vehicles in order to recycle their aluminum. Nippon developed technology that extracts lithium from the batteries, and plans to have its trial plant running as early as 2011,” according to an online report in Hybrid Cars. The report noted that GS Yuasa, a major producer of automotive batteries, will begin collecting used lithium-ion batteries from automakers in a few years to further develop its recycling process.
Back in the United States, we checked in with Johnson Controls, which is the world’s leading manufacturer of lead-acid batteries. Management noted that since the company just started production of lithium batteries for hybrids, there’s nothing to recycle for a while. (We note that current hybrid vehicle batteries are supposed to last as long the car, which is at least 100,000 miles and potentially up to 200,000 miles, according to our research.) However, JCI said its expectation is that the lithium batteries “will certainly be recycled.” It’s not clear whether the company plans to do this itself or will outsource it to a third party. While it’s still early, we think lithium battery recycling is an emerging growth segment of the recycling industry definitely worth watching in the years ahead.
NOTE: This article first appeared in Canaccord Adam’s Talking Trash newsletter (September 21, 2009 edition)
Eric Glover is Analyst, Sustainability Practice in the San Francisco, California office of Canaccord Adams (headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts). Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Toxco plans to use the DOE grant to transfer its existing lithium battery recycling technology from its Trail, British Columbia recycling facility to the Lancaster site.”