Honda Taps Recycling Firms for Future EV Batteries
Recycling and reusing battery materials is a top priority for Honda as the vehicle maker targets 100% of its global automotive sales being electrified vehicles by 2040.
Honda says this is the year when sustainability solutions for its future EV business establish a firm foothold. “This includes beginning to build up an infrastructure for EV battery recycling and reuse in preparation for the eventual end-of-life for [electrified] vehicles and their batteries,” Phil Cozad, North American lithium-ion battery recycling leader for Honda Development & Manufacturing America LLC, told SAE Media.
Earlier this year, Honda inked agreements with two battery recycling companies, Cirba Solutions and Ascend Elements. “These agreements with battery recycling companies are well-timed, as the Honda electrification strategy we announced two years ago is now well underway, starting with accelerating our sales of hybrid-electric vehicles as we work toward our transition to 100% electrified BEVs and FCEVs by 2040,” Cozad explained.
By 2050, Honda intends to reach carbon neutrality with its corporate activities and all products. “Achieving that will require unprecedented change in nearly everything that we do, including how we source materials, how we build and sell new products, and how we recycle or reuse every bit of the materials from our end-of-life vehicles,” Cozad asserted.
The mining and refining of first-use raw materials requires a significant amount of energy. Mineral extraction also emits a massive amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. “That’s why our plan is to reprocess end-of-life vehicles back to raw materials, then reuse those materials in the creation of new products,” Cozad explained. Another benefit from the recycling and reuse approach is reduced market volatility for finite materials.
Andreas Breiter, partner at the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., noted that using recycled battery materials for EV batteries equates to an approximately 25% lower carbon-emissions battery cell footprint versus using virgin battery raw materials. “This is a result of reduced carbon emissions in the raw material mining and refining stage where the battery recycling of raw materials cause about three to four times lower emissions compared to using new battery raw materials that require extraction and processing of lower-grade materials,” said Breiter.
Turning old batteries into new batteries
An EV battery pack contains a multitude of materials. “From the outer steel shell to the internal wiring and even the battery-management system, the materials are recyclable. The battery chemistry will determine what critical metals are able to be extracted, but nickel, cobalt, lithium, and manganese are typical examples,” David Klanecky, President and CEO of Cirba Solutions, told SAE Media.
Cirba Solutions’ processes can work with all battery chemistries, including lead, alkaline, nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal hydride and lithium-ion. “We also process some lesser-known chemistries that are used in military applications,” Klanecky said. All types of battery formats (such as prismatic, pouch and cylindrical) and battery-pack sizes (including passenger EVs and commercial vehicles) also are handled by the Charlotte, North Carolina-headquartered company that formed from the 2022 merger of Heritage Battery Recycling, Retriev Technologies and Battery Solutions.
Recycled materials may or may not need additional processing. “If the output from a processed battery is black mass, then the materials will need additional processing to get to a battery-grade material. Otherwise, a process can go directly to a battery-grade salt that is at a purity level for new cathode development,” Klanecky said, noting the company’s extraction process has intellectual property protection.
Ascend Elements uses a novel technique for processing materials to become battery-ready cathode material. “Our patented Hydro-to-Cathode direct precursor synthesis process eliminates energy-intensive intermediate steps and produces new cathode precursor (pCAM) without metals extraction or separation,” Ascend Elements CEO Mike O’Kronley said.
Instead of extracting metals from black mass, impurities are extracted via the Ascend Elements process that leaves cathode minerals intact in an aqueous solution. “We then use microstructure engineering techniques to adjust the elemental crystal structure needed to develop new cathode material to precise customer specifications,” said O’Kronley. By eliminating the intermediate processing steps, the carbon footprint of new cathode material is reduced by more than 90% compared to traditional cathode manufacturing methods.
“We can recycle a 10-year-old battery from a first-generation EV, break it down to an aqueous solution containing lithium, nickel and cobalt atoms, then rearrange those atoms into the newest type of cathode active materials,” O’Kronley said, citing lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide (NMC) 811 or a high nickel cobalt manganese aluminum (NMCA) as examples.
The incoming feedstock can be a mixture of different lithium-ion battery types and elemental compositions, such as used batteries from EVs, laptops, cell phones, scooters and power tools. “Even gigafactory scrap and waste can be part of the mix. There’s no need to sort batteries into different categories before recycling,” O’Kronley pointed out.
U.S. battery recycling production ramps up
In addition to its headquarters and R&D center in Westborough, Massachusetts, Ascend Elements has a 150,000 square foot battery recycling facility in Covington, Georgia and a cathode sintering pilot plant in Novi, Michigan. The company is investing more than $1 billion, including $480 million in grant funds from the U.S. Department of Energy, to build and equip a sustainable cathode manufacturing complex in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. It will be the first pCAM facility in the U.S. The plant, expected to be operational in late 2024, will have the capacity to produce NMC pCAM for up to 750,000 EVs annually.
Cirba Solutions has five plants in the U.S. and a facility in Canada. A seventh plant in North America is targeted to break ground in late 2023. That $340 million-plus South Carolina facility will be operational in phases starting in late 2024. An existing Cirba Solutions plant in Lancaster, Ohio is undergoing an $275 million expansion (the Ohio plant project includes more than $82 million in federal funds). “We’ll increase the capacity of incoming batteries that can be processed by more than 600 percent, and we’ll expand the product offering coming out of that plant to be able to produce nickel, cobalt, and lithium-based salts that will go right back into the battery supply chain,” Klanecky said. When fully operational, the Lancaster facility will collect, disassemble and shred materials from Li-ion batteries and then annually process those materials for use in cathodes that can power more than 200,000 new EVs.
A recycling revolution in the U.S.
While private and government investments in battery recycling are increasing capacity within the U.S., the nation is not the global leader. “China is ahead of the rest of the world in all aspects of Li-ion battery manufacturing. This includes not only the assembly of the battery but the entire battery supply chain, which also includes raw material refinement and battery recycling,” noted O’Kronley.
Virtually every automaker is slanting its operations toward vehicle electrification and battery recycling, according to Cirba Solutions’ Klanecky. “Automakers are in different phases with battery recycling and that’s based on each OEM’s electrification plans and how aggressive they want to be about getting fully electric and being able to source and recycle critical raw materials,” he said. GM was one of the first automakers to transition from ICE-powered vehicles to an electrified portfolio and partner with battery recycling companies.
For Honda, achieving sustainability for its EV business involves leveraging current engineering knowledge and developing new business models. “As with any emerging need, innovation and continuous improvement will be required to scale full-vehicle and EV battery recycling to a level needed for efficiently replacing first-use raw material sources,” noted Cozad.
In June 2023, the U.S. Department of Energy announced more than $192 million in funding for consumer product battery recycling, continuing the Battery Recycling Prize (a program that began in 2019), funding a new Breakthrough Contest as well as launching an advanced battery R&D consortium. The consortium will provide up to $60 million for the next phase of widespread EV commercialization, including further development of the domestic battery supply chain and advancement of the recycling capabilities for EV batteries.
An industry estimate that less than 5% of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries are being recycled worldwide today is staggeringly low. But the recycling picture will change. “In 2035, the industry will see the benefit of the work being implemented today, including access to battery collection/drop off points, increased sustainable content being used in new EV batteries, and a bigger Clean Energy sector,” Klanecky predicted.