What's Best For Old Electric-Car Batteries: Reuse Or Recycling?

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Lithium-ion battery pack of 2011 Nissan Leaf, showing cells assembled into modules

Lithium-ion battery pack of 2011 Nissan Leaf, showing cells assembled into modules

A common misconception of electric cars and hybrid vehicles is that at the end of a short battery life, the remainder is dumped in landfill and contributes ever more pollution to the Earth.

Of course, we know this to be incorrect. Not only are the more common lead acid batteries the world's most recycled product, but dumping old ones makes little economic sense either. Not only that, but battery life in hybrid cars is already well-proven under the toughest of conditions - as yellow cabs in New York and San Francisco.

Electric car batteries use expensive metals like nickel and cobalt in their construction and recycling and re-using reduces the ecological impact - and cost - of mining for ore. Nor is recycling the sole option for old batteries - even when an electric car battery gets to the end of its usable life in a car, it could be put to good use in your home instead.

So which path is best for the future of electric car batteries, once their useful life comes to an end? We explore the options below.

Recycling - already underway

The recycling of batteries is far from a pipe dream. Several manufacturers and independent companies are already recycling old batteries from other electrical goods such as laptops and phones, and carmakers such as Honda and Toyota, both of whom have been building hybrid vehicles for more than a decade, have programs running to recycle old batteries.

Toyota Motor has early experience of battery technology, producing the Prius hybrid since 1997 and having sold an electric variant of the RAV4 back in 1998. The company has partnerships with companies in Europe and the U.S. to recycle old batteries and a new recycling process in Japan has prompted the company to ship old units back there to recycle them more efficiently.

Battery life

The timeframe itself needs to be considered too. Many of the original hybrid vehicles sold have done vast milages on their original battery packs, as evidenced by several New York taxi fleet Ford Escape Hybrids on 300,000 miles or more with barely any failures.

Many manufacturers of all-electric cars expect an 8 to 10 year battery life in normal driving. Even that could be erring on the safe side, as plenty of electric RAV4 owners are still on their original battery packs after well over a decade.

This long battery life does give companies time to develop ever-more efficient ways of recycling batteries to extract the useful materials, and automakers today take recycling into consideration far more than they did a decade ago.

Volt Battery Pack

Volt Battery Pack

Re-using batteries

But who is to say we'll even need to recycle old electric car batteries?

After 10-15 years when the battery in an electric car is reaching the end of its life and the owner moves on to pastures new, it doesn't necessarily spell the end for the battery itself, even if the car is heading for the junk yard. 80 percent charge might mean reduced range in your car, but that's still a lot of energy storage with plenty of potential.

Re-using old batteries for other purposes is something General Motors and the ABB Group is exploring. Old Chevy Volt batteries could be put to use as stationary storage, either in the home or at a more commercial level. Storage of renewable energy is a popular suggestion - electricity generated by wind or solar power would be stored by the battery and then used when its needed.

A similar principal applies to community back-up power - contingency for blackouts, for example - and time-of-use management for businesses, storing off-peak energy and using it when demand is higher. On a larger scale, energy companies could use the storage potential to satisfy demand at peak times.

Recycle or re-use?

Of all the scenarios, home re-use seems most likely and most practical. There have been concerns raised about more widespread commercial use of old batteries as companies may be unwilling to take hundreds of different battery packs in from many different sources - a logistical nightmare.

An old Volt or Nissan Leaf pack could be quite useful in the home, storing energy from solar panels on your roof to be used at peak times, providing backup power in outages or even feeding power back to the grid when demand increases.

So what will happen to the batteries in your electric car when they're past their best? Who knows, but even if they aren't recycled, they could prove very useful elsewhere.

[New York Times]

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