Electric Cars

For dead EV batteries, reuse comes before recycle

Automakers and e-waste recyclers find new uses for electric vehicle batteries when their on-road service life ends.

Tesla Model S battery pack

As electric vehicle sales grow, industry needs to address the problem of an increasing number of lithium-ion batteries that either no longer hold a charge or become damaged in a crash. This Tesla Model S chassis holds up to 100 kilowatt-hours of batteries.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Electric vehicles make up less than 1 percent of current US auto sales, but their numbers are growing, with one projection putting them at 54 percent by 2040. The number of battery packs for these vehicles will also increase, and that presents a waste problem. Beyond a rising tide of pure electric cars, the increasing number of hybrid and plug-in hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles will contribute to this problem.

What happens when a hybrid or electric car's battery pack gets damaged in an accident, wears out or just stops working?

The value of these batteries, potential reuse and danger to the environment if they are merely discarded is causing automakers to adopt new strategies to deal with old parts. And in conjunction with this need, there's an opportunity for e-waste recyclers to step in.

The junkyards of America became stacked with crushed cars over the last century, the big cylinder blocks of once-vaunted engines rusting away along with fenders and frames. With electric cars, however, the idea of leaving a lithium-ion battery pack in a junkyard car looks foolish from a financial standpoint, as a Bloomberg report (PDF) notes that these batteries cost $273 per kilowatt-hour in 2016.

For a car with a 30 kilowatt-hour battery pack, junking it would mean an $8,190 component rotting away.

Panasonic lithium-ion battery for Tesla

Panasonic supplies these cylindrical 18650 batteries to Tesla, which get integrated into the cars' battery packs. These small cells can be reused in power tools and other devices.

Panasonic

Tesla's current model lineup uses battery packs of 75 and 100 kilowatt-hours, accounting for a big chunk of each car's individual price tag. Although Tesla didn't respond to a query about its battery disposal strategy in time for publication, the company published a blog in 2011 outlining its process. The blog notes that the automotive industry already has a profitable system in place for recycling the lead-acid batteries used in gasoline engine cars, with a 90 percent intake rate. The blog mentions reusing components from the battery packs, and recycling the rest.

Tesla may be finding even more profit in recycling, as earlier this year, a company called Redwood Materials emerged with apparent ties to the company. This Redwood City, California-based company, not too far from Tesla's own headquarters in Palo Alto, seems focused on recycling modern commercial waste, as a form on its site covers everything from lithium-ion batteries to compost.

Nissan put the Leaf electric car on the road in 2010, and has sold over 100,000 units in the US through 2016. A new version of the Nissan Leaf comes out next year, which will likely lead to a boost in sales. To deal with the accumulation of battery packs either replaced at dealer service departments or pulled from crashed Leafs, Nissan sends some out to a recycler.

However, Nissan subsidiary 4REnergy also figures out how to reuse the batteries. Nissan spokesman Josh Clifton said, "Reuse opportunities range from very small kilowatt-hour applications involving portable energy supplies to very large megawatt-hour stationary energy storage for commercial and utility."

Nissan 4REnergy battery energy storage

Nissan company 4REnergy created these electricity storage units for a solar plant from used Leaf batteries.

Nissan

An electric vehicle battery pack may seem dead, but the individual cells inside may be perfectly usable. The energy capacity of a cell might degrade, but sometimes the circuitry in a pack throws an error when all the cells are perfectly fine. The cells can be pulled and reused, either in a new electric vehicle battery pack or for another application, such as a portable energy unit.

Chevrolet is set to take a similar approach, as its existing Volt plug-in hybrids accumulate miles and its new purely electric Bolt model hits the roads this year. Chris Bonelli, coordinator at Chevrolet's Global Advanced Technology Communications department, said, "We absolutely are taking a comprehensive approach to managing the complete lifecycle of EV batteries as a responsible manufacturer. We know that sustainable battery lifecycle management is achieved through a combination of refurbishment and reuse, ultimately leading to recycling."

In a previous press release, Chevrolet pointed out how it is using older batteries from its first generation Volt model as backup power at a GM data center, and is looking at other uses. Pablo Valencia, Chevrolet senior manager of Battery Life Cycle Management, points out that after a battery pack becomes unusable for the Volt, it still has 80 percent of its storage capacity.

To deal with batteries from its electric 500e model, Fiat works with an e-waste recycler called IT Asset Partners (ITAP). At the company's Chatsworth, California, location, workers open up the battery packs and pull out the individual flat cells. ITAP tests the cells to find their current capacity, and either resells or repurposes them.

IT Asset Partners EV battery recycling

IT Asset partners takes in pallet loads of supposedly dead electric vehicle batteries, and test them for reuse.

Wayne Cunningham/Roadshow

To illustrate the value in supposedly scrap materials, ITAP founder Eric Lundgren built an electric car, dubbed The Phoenix, which managed 750 miles at highway speeds on a single charge of its 140 kilowatt-hour battery pack. The car was built from a junked BMW 5 Series, with all salvaged materials, at a total cost to ITAP of $14,000.

On a more practical front, ITAP mounted salvaged solar panels on its roof, storing the accumulated electricity in battery packs comprised of reused electric vehicle cells. On a tour of the facility, Lundgren said he expects to install a megawatt-hour of battery capacity. That power storage not only supplies the entire needs of the Chatsworth facility, but also lets it contract to supply emergency electricity to the local utility.

There is a point, however, when these batteries cannot be reused. Either a battery cell has degraded so much that it can't hold a charge, or it might have been physically damaged in a car crash. Due to contents such as lead, cobalt and chromium, lithium-ion batteries can become an environmental hazard if not disposed of properly.

Companies such as Retriev Technologies specialize in battery recycling. This process involves mechanically crushing the battery cells, then smelting them to separate the most valuable materials inside. That process is more energy-intensive than reusing cells, and hence more wasteful, but it keeps whole batteries from being dumped in landfill.

Working against the need for battery reuse and recycling, Bloomberg predicts the cost of electric vehicle batteries to decline substantially, down to $73 per kilowatt-hour by 2030. That decrease comes due to increasing production and lower cost materials. While good news for consumers buying electric cars, it takes away some of the incentive to responsibly dispose of battery packs.

However, Tesla's reference to the current system for recycling lead-acid batteries suggests that electric vehicle batteries will follow a similar route, likely with more engagement from automakers.

And regulations will play a big part in keeping battery packs out of landfill. Over half of US states require some form of battery recycling, including California, which has by far the largest rate of electric vehicle adoption. Federal law only requires recycling of nickel-cadmium and lead-acid batteries, but as electric vehicles proliferate, legislators will need to address the battery issue.

It is still too early to say whether our future will include no-go zones of discarded electric vehicles, with toxic materials from batteries leaching into soil and water. However, the current high cost of battery packs is incentivizing automakers to engage in developing recycling systems. And once a system is in place, it is unlikely to be disbanded.

The fact that a battery no longer usable for an electric vehicle can still find life in other energy storage applications also suggests an interstitial step before recycling that will encourage responsible disposal.