Tesla Battery Recycling Remains

The “fluff” remains after the Tesla Roadster’s lithium batteries are processed for recycling.

As automakers race toward bringing hybrid and electric cars into the mainstream, environmentalists worry about the ability to properly recycle the batteries that power those cars. Most industry analysts believe that we are a decade or more away from needing to recycle nickel or lithium auto batteries in significant volumes. Yet, the first lithium battery recycling plants are already being established.

Nikkei reported yesterday that Japan’s Nippon Mining & Metals Co. and GS Yuasa Corp. each plan to start collecting lithium ion batteries from scrapped electric and hybrid vehicles in order to recycle their lithium. Nippon developed technology that extracts lithium from the batteries, and plans to have its trial plant running as early as 2011. 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 process of recycling based on how much lithium is used in different parts of the batteries.

Last month, the US Department of Energy granted $9.5 million to California-based Toxco to build America’s first recycling facility for lithium ion vehicle batteries. Today’s hybrids use nickel metal hydride batteries, but within a few years, automakers are expected to shift to lithium batteries for hybrids and plug-in cars. Lithium ion batteries can be lighter and smaller, while carrying more energy and providing more power.

Toxco is North America’s leading battery recycler and has been recycling single-charge and rechargeable lithium batteries found in electronics devices and industrial applications since 1992 at its Canadian facility in Trail, British Columbia. The company uses a detailed process involving freezing, crushing, dismantling, and purification via electrodialysis. The DOE grant will help Toxco transfer the Trail recycling process to its Ohio operations, laying the foundation for an advanced lithium battery recycling plant that can expand to meet expected rapid growth in the US electric car market.

To recycle the current generation of nickel-based hybrid batteries, carmakers dismantle every ounce and scrap of the battery, from the precious metals to the plastic, plates, steel case and the wiring, to make sure the materials are processed for disposal. Carmakers offer a bounty to help ensure the battery is returned to a dealership and properly recycled.

Battery Economics

There is currently little economic need to recycle lithium ion batteries. Most batteries contain small amounts of lithium carbonate as a percentage of weight and the material is relatively inexpensive compared to most other metals, such as nickel and cobalt. As lithium battery packs become larger—and the number of hybrids and electric cars that use lithium batters expands—recycling will become more important and more profitable. Mainstream vehicles will have to begin using lithium ion batteries and run those batteries for at least several years before recycling becomes an issue.

Bolivia has the world’s largest supply of lithium—about 5.4 million tons in the Uyuni Desert alone. Chile has about 3 million tons and the United States owns about 750,000 tons. Despite media reports to the contrary, current demand for lithium is not likely to cause shortages.

Unlike caustic lead acid car batteries—which fortunately are recycled at rates approaching 99 percent—advanced lithium ion batteries do not use harmful acids or metals, such as lead, to store electrical power. Lithium ion batteries use copper, cobalt, iron and nickel that are considered safe for landfills and incinerators, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.