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The Case for Recycling High Voltage Advanced Batteries


The recycling of high voltage advanced batteries used in automotive, industrial and stationary energy storage (ESS) applications has long been a regular topic of conversation in the battery industry. The topic is a challenging one because, unlike recycling lead-acid batteries, which produces a waste stream of valuable and resalable lead, recycling advanced batteries based on lithium-ion, nickel metal hydride (NiMH), and nickel zinc chemistries is generally a cost-negative proposition. SAE International has a standing subcommittee on battery recycling, which been studying and making recommendations about advanced automotive battery recycling for several years.  EPRI will will shortly release a study about decommissioning ESS systems that include high voltage advanced batteries.  But except for those studies and a $9.5 million ARRA grant from the DOE to Toxco back in 2009, little has happened in North America to promote the systematic recycling of high voltage advanced batteries.

There are three principal reasons for the lack of progress on advanced battery recycling. First, and perhaps most obvious, is because the use of high voltage advanced batteries in vehicle, industrial and ESS applications is a relatively new phenomenon.  Few such batteries have yet reached their end-of-life stage where safe disposition must be considered. But this is about to change. A recent report published by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) estimates that nearly 276,000 advanced automotive batteries reached their end-of-life stage in North America in 2015. Most of those were NiMH batteries. Over the next 15 years, CEC expects almost 1.5 million advanced automotive traction batteries to reach their end-of-life, of which about half will be lithium-ion batteries. And this is just the beginning.  The markets for high voltage advanced batteries in automotive, industrial and ESS applications is growing explosively. Navigant Consulting predicts that the market for new lithium-ion batteries alone during the 2015-2024 period will exceed $221 billion.  Eventually all these batteries will reach their end-of-life and need to be disposed of in some way.

The second reason for so little action on the advanced battery recycling front is because recycling advocates have largely failed to address a fundamental question:  Is there a need to recycle advanced batteries at all?  Recycling is not a given. There are plenty of hazardous substances and systems used in automobiles (e.g., airbags) and in electricity grid infrastructure for which no dedicated recycling program exists. Moreover, one of the principal benefits that most advanced batteries enjoy over traditional lead acid batteries is that they do not contain significant amounts of hazardous chemicals or metals that require special handling. It is reasonable to ask whether there is something so unique about high voltage advanced batteries that requires a special recycling mandate.

If there is a case to be made for a special regulation requiring the recycling of advanced battery recycling, that case will center on three arguments. The first has to do with the issue of stranded energy. The prospect of a fully or partially charged high voltage battery laying in a salvage yard or landfill is a public safety hazard of a completely different magnitude than that of any other expired automotive or grid infrastructure system. If high voltage advanced batteries containing an electric charge are mishandled, people will die. And potentially quite a few of them. Phil Gorney has been ringing alarm bells at NHTSA about this for the past year. A mandatory recycling regime would minimize the chance of public exposure to charged high voltage batteries and reduce an obvious public safety hazard.

The second argument centers on ensuring the long term supply and price stability of energy materials, such as lithium, cobalt and nickel. The price of lithium carbonate has famously tripled over the last year, an increase widely attributed to growing demand for battery-grade lithium. Last January, China published a Policy on Recycling and Utilization Technologies for Electric Vehicle Batteries (2015 Edition), which seems aimed at protecting the access of Chinese battery manufacturers to a long term supply of energy materials by using recycling as a source of alternate supply. Instability in the availability and/or price of the energy materials is a strategic risk as it would undermine the long-term economics of vehicle electrification, energy storage and, ultimately, integrating variable renewable energy onto the grid. The U.S. Department of Commerce is actively studying the strategic implications of advanced battery recycling.

The third argument for advanced battery recycling turns on a life-cycle analysis of advanced batteries and their impact on carbon emissions. If one of the principal goals of vehicle electrification and renewable energy integration on the grid is the reduction of greenhouse gases, the energy inputs and carbon emissions from mining and refining energy materials must be considered. Recycling advanced batteries can considerably alter the relative environmental “cost” of advanced battery technology compared to hydrocarbon technology (which cannot be recycled). An environmental analysis of advanced battery life-cycle is discussed in Linda Gaines’ 2012 article “To Recycle, or Not to Recycle, That is the Question: Insights from Life-Cycle Analysis.”

Finally, a major, unspoken reason for the lack of much progress on advanced battery recycling is the uncertainty about who would have to pay for it. Vehicle OEM’s, advanced battery manufacturers, and ESS developers are rightfully concerned that imposing additional cost in the form of a recycling fee on high voltage advanced batteries would unduly burden the price-sensitive emerging markets for advanced battery applications, such as electrified vehicles and ESS. But if the value of advanced battery technology is its ability to address the larger social issues of greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum dependence, the cost of recycling those batteries so that they can perform their larger social function should be socialized in the same way that we have socialized a portion of the costs of renewable energy generation and electric vehicles themselves. This issue must be addressed in the design of any new mandatory recycling regime.

NAATBatt International will co-host with SAE International a preliminary meeting to discuss a potential mandatory advanced battery recycling regime during the The Battery Show in Novi, Michigan on September 15, 2016.  Members of NAATBatt International and SAE International are welcome to register for the meeting and are encouraged to attend. NAATBatt will host a public workshop on advanced battery recycling at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI on November 30, 2016. Details about the workshop will be posted soon under Events on the NAATBatt website at

Photo Credit: James Almond via Flickr

James Greenberger's picture

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