Establishing Closed-Loop EV Battery Recycling
A century of experience is helping Clarios build the lithium-reuse network.
Last spring, Clarios, the world’s largest automotive battery maker formerly known as Johnson Controls, emerged a winner in the second phase of the Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize competition. The three-phase program, sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Energy, aims to develop and demonstrate processes that, when scaled, have the potential to profitably capture 90% of all discarded or spent lithium-based batteries in the U.S., and re-introduce key recycled materials into the U.S. supply chain.
Clarios’ winning concept for the DoE prize (worth a total of $5.5 million) focuses on developing and applying technologies to identify and separate lithium-ion batteries from lead-acid types, ensuring the proper and safe recycling methods for each chemistry. In Phase III of the competition, Clarios aims to validate its concept in pilot programs.
Adam Muellerweiss (right) is Clarios’ chief sustainability officer and also serves as president of the Responsible Battery Coalition, a group of automotive OEMs, large fleet owners, auto parts stores and other retailers working to build a closed-loop recycling network for lithium batteries. Muellerweiss spoke with editor Lindsay Brooke about the challenges and opportunities for recycling hybrid and EV batteries.
Clarios has over 100 years of experience in recycling lead-acid batteries, at a rate of 99%. Are there learnings you are applying to hybrid and EV batteries?
Yes. Our experience began before Daimler and Benz built their first  motorcycle. Today, we’re at about the same point in the process with recycling advanced lithium batteries as we were back then. Currently our process can separate that wide spectrum of materials, but the technology isn’t yet at the ‘holy grail’ stage − of being able to harvest battery-grade materials and turn them right back into equal-grade materials for new batteries.
The circular or closed-loop supply chain for lead-acid relies on the ability of people to return their used batteries. Over 80 percent of the materials that we use for new batteries are recycled lead and polypropylene. Future recycling demand will require all types of batteries and chemistries. At Clarios we’re really focused on ensuring the right chemistry for the right application across its life cycle.
Separating and reclaiming materials from the wide spectrum of anode and cathode constituents, and from the variety of cell form factors, is the goal, correct?
The German automotive battery maker Varta [purchased by JCI in 2007] first recycled a lead-acid battery in Germany before Daimler and Benz built their first motorcycle. Today, we’re at about the first stage of the process as we look at recycling advanced lithium batteries as we were way back then. Currently we can separate that wide spectrum of materials, but we may not yet be at the ‘holy grail’ of being able to take battery-grade materials and turn them right back into battery-grade materials.
We learned that from our experience with lead acid batteries. The OEs would spec only virgin materials for new-vehicle assembly, but it was the aftermarket people who asked why we had to mine virgin materials when we already had them available in used batteries -- and could collect them easily. That’s when materials from used batteries began entering the aftermarket’s new batteries. Eventually the OEM specs allowed use of recycled materials.
To what degree are the nickel metal-hydride batteries used in millions of Toyota Priuses in play?
Hybrids’ battery pack value is proven. Prius batteries don’t sit in junk yards. They’re being collected and rebuilt for taxicab use in many of the early Priuses out there, and for aftermarket service batteries. We’re seeing a lot of second life in the battery’s original application because that pack was designed, validated, and tested to automotive grade, and proven to be safe in use. So, while the discussions about using that pack for another energy-storage source, perhaps a stationary application, might be an interesting topic, that battery was really designed for use in a vehicle. What we’re seeing is the most likely trend to emerge is batteries being used to extend the life of the vehicle, in the same industry experience as remanufactured transmissions, engines and other components.
So, the ball is rolling?
Yes, that’s where the DoE Lithium competition is so exciting. They have very smart people with some incredible tools looking at those ‘holy grail’ opportunities. Argonne National Laboratory’s ReCell Center is focused on taking those ‘used’ materials and turning them into battery-grade materials. We’re not quite there yet but we know we’re on the evolutionary path. And once you have used batteries in hand, you need to aggregate them across major markets, across the country. That requires transporting them, in some cases storing them to wait for available capacity or just to manage material flow. There has to be an underlying infrastructure, long term, to handle a large magnitude of batteries. Currently the scale that’s required isn’t there.
As EV production and sales volumes increase, there will be hybrids and EVs crashed and reaching their end of life. They won’t likely end up in junk yards because they’ve got a valuable battery pack in them to be harvested. How will this steadily increasing stream of hybrid and EV batteries be handled?
In the short term take a Prius, for example. It’s reached the end of its life and has an intact battery. It’s likely that today, those Prius batteries won’t even make it to the scrapper because the pack has a known value and there are companies remanufacturing Prius batteries for aftermarket service. It goes right back into a Prius. It’s like a wrecked Corvette with an intact engine – the engine isn’t likely to go into a shredder.
And if a battery pack is not intact, it needs to be safely and manageably handled. The automakers have very specific procedures for how to manage and recover those packs. We’re already seeing some of those batteries, and some batteries used in testing, come in. One thing we hate to see is lead-acid batteries end up in scrap yards; they should have been removed before that stage. We’ll see some similar practices with lithium types.
What excites me is the gearheads, the mechanics, who are retrofitting EVs and upgrading classic cars with electric engines. There’s a growing market for battery reuse there, although it does contain some questions of liability. But it’s what has spurred a lot of innovation in the early days of EVs.
So, you see two pathways for battery reuse? One would be in the charging infrastructure, for grid buffering of solar and wind, for example. The other would be to disassemble used cells to mine them for their lithium content. Correct?
You’ll see all of the above. There are opportunities to remanufacture EV packs and return them to use in vehicles before what we would consider a ‘third life’ in a different application. But if you look at that pack, it’s original design intent was use as original equipment in a vehicle. That very pack might ultimately serve for a couple of decades in a vehicle. Stationary storage technology is evolving quickly as well. With the right cell chemistry across the life cycle, that pack after 20 years of use may have been surpassed by alternative chemistries that were designed for micro grids and other stationary applications. There is some merit in using vehicle batteries for other purposes, but we see that further out.
Even with our lithium-ion products, we make choices in what plastics to use – so why not use the same ones from our conventional lead-acid products? It allows us to take that component directly into our recycling system without modification. It might mean more separation is needed in some of the other components, and partner with other companies that have technologies and capacity to do it. We’re using that network to develop capabilities to handle and recover multiple chemistries. The rare-earth materials and the more ‘conflicted-source’ materials such as cobalt coming from the Republic of Congo that are valuable.
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