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.

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