Monday, September 5, 2011

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, newfangled batteries powering 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, from power tools to mobile phones. 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 here in Hoboken that is one of the world’s largest recyclers of precious and specialty metals from electronic waste.
Aswin Kumar, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan. [points out] “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 up to around 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 from 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 at home.... General Motors and Nissan Motor, whose Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are newer to the market ... 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.
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 September. The German government gave Chemetall, which is part of a consortium called LithoRec that includes Volkswagen and its Audi unit, €5.7 million, or $8.2 million, of the €14.3 million cost. The British government this year granted £500,000, or $813,000, for a similar project to a group of companies including Axeon.
In Belgium, Umicore plans to formally open a €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 intense heat — more than 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,370 Fahrenheit) — strips 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 earth elements 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 scaled up to handle more than a million car batteries each year from the current capacity of 150,000....  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 partly depend on the market value of the metals recovered by Umicore. 
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.
The New York Times
August 30, 2011

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