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New kid in town: the emergence of hybrid-fueled cars could boost the number of nickel-metal hydride batteries in the recycling stream.

In general, battery recycling has a positive reputation. More than 97 percent of lead-acid batteries are recycled, according to the Web site of the Chicago-based Battery Council International (BCI). This compares to 55 percent of aluminum beverage cans, 26 percent of glass bottles and 71 percent of newspapers.

The BCI reports on its site that the average new lead-acid battery is composed of 60 percent to 80 percent recycled lead and plastic.

A new kid on the block may present an emerging challenge in battery recycling, however. As nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries--the rechargeable power source for hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs)--are popping up in the auto market with increasing frequency, so are issues concerning how to best recycle the emerging commodity.

GETTING IT TOGETHER. Only a few years ago, gas-electric hybrid vehicles were more a luxury for the wealthy and curious than an everyday vehicle for the average driver. But since Toyota Motors brought the hybrid Prius to the U.S. market in 2000, technology has improved and the vehicles--as well as the batteries that power them--have become more affordable. According to the Automotive Recycling Association, Fairfax, Va., Toyota plans to introduce three more hybrid models by 2006. (A portion of the Toyota Prius hybrid engine is pictured at right.)

By that same year, other auto manufacturers, including Ford, Lexus and General Motors, plan to put out hybrid models to join Toyota's Prius and Honda's Insight and the hybrid model Civic. More HEVs on the road will equal more NiMH batteries that will eventually make their way into recycling streams.

Of course, it could take a decade until the batteries make their way to recyclers in any sizable quantities, says Shane Thompson, international accounts manager for metal recycler Inmetco, Ellwood City, Pa. Thompson says most NiMH batteries are expected to last between eight and 10 years, or 100,000 miles. Eventually, Thompson says, manufacturers hope to have batteries that can last the life of the car. But even the current life expectancy is about two years longer than the six-to-eight year life expectancy of a lead-acid auto battery.

Thompson says recyclers are working to get an infrastructure in place to handle the dismantling and recycling of NiMH batteries before the early generations reach their end of life. Other rechargeable batteries, like nickel-cadmium units for cell phones and lap top computers, have long enjoyed an established handling process held up by state regulations that encourage voluntary recycling programs. Lead-acid auto batteries share the same advantage. But NiMH batteries are still too new to have such a solid system in place, Thompson says.

"It's looking like the cars are going back to the dealers (at the end of life), but it isn't a firm system," Thompson says. He says dealers will need to get instructions about how to safely handle the batteries and prepare them for storage and shipping.

But the fledgling recycling process for NiMH batteries is already starting to take the shape of the system that's in place for handling more traditional lead-acid auto batteries, according to environmental consultant Richard Paul.

He says NiMH batteries, like their lead-acid counterparts, are first removed by the automotive dismantlers--one step away from the consumer. "There's not a great deal of difference there," he says. "Just like lead-acid batteries, the key to safely removing an NiMH unit is to simply never try to cut or remove the battery with the power on."

Paul says the same concerns with storing and transporting any auto battery also apply to nickel-metal hydrides. As with all batteries, dismantlers need to be wary of the risk of electric shock when removing NiMH batteries, according to Bill Duff, corporate manager of the environmental coordination office of Toyota Motor Sales Inc., Torrance, Calif. "Dismantlers should understand the amounts of chemical energy stored in these batteries," Duffsays. "They should not attempt to 'deactivate' them without proper safety training and safeguards."

It is at the next level--the recycling facility--that things get a little more complicated.

For one thing, the battery cells contain potassium hydroxide, which is highly corrosive and can be damaging to living tissue, Thompson says.

According to Duff, understanding the nickel-metal hydride battery's unique chemical makeup is central to recycling it safely, even if it means putting the extra expense into developing special training programs at the facilities where these batteries are managed.

SEEING GREEN. Nickel is the real prize inside the NiMH battery, says Bruce McKean, director of product stewardship for the Nickel Institute, headquartered in Toronto. And its high price might be enough to encourage companies to take the plunge and explore recycling NiMH batteries. "Nickel is expensive; it doesn't require an artificial motive (to recycle)," he says. "There's enough value there where it almost pays for itself." The London Metal Exchange has the average monthly-price of nickel towering over many other nonferrous metals at $14,045.45 per metric ton, as of late November 2004.

Each battery has its own chemical makeup, depending on the manufacturer, says McKean. And while many NiMH batteries also contain some rare earth elements, they occur in extremely small amounts. "There are different recipes for different batteries," McKean says. "And at the end of life, they go into the furnace and the exotic pieces are there, but only in tiny, tiny amounts. The time and energy of putting them in the furnace to extract the rare earth elements would not be economical."

But McKean says while the rare earth elements can get lost in the recycling process, some cobalt and even zinc can be recovered from some NiMH batteries in addition to valuable nickel. A fair amount of plastic an also be recovered from the battery casing, says Paul.

The high price nickel fetches isn't the only reason to divert NiMH batteries away from landfills. Although no governmental regulation specifically forbids disposing of NiMH batteries in landfills, sources contacted say the units are still extremely unwelcome.

"Nickel-metal hydride batteries are considered to be a 'greener' battery because they do not contain heavy metals like lead and cadmium," says Duff. "However, most batteries have hazardous constituents, whether it is the metals that are present or the electrolytes. So even though these batteries do not contain 'heavy metals,' they may pose a threat to the environment if improperly disposed of."

"We definitely don't want these batteries in a landfill," Thompson agrees, again partly because the corrosive potassium hydroxide poses serious risks. "Also, it's a battery--it releases energy and energy is commonly associated with fire," Thompson says.

But the potential rewards from recycling NiMH batteries provide just as much incentive to keep them out of landfills as the risks of dumping them, says Toyota's Duff.

"These batteries, like lead-acid batteries, have recoverable amounts of metal--nickel and cobalt primarily. And these resources are important and should be available for re-use," he says. But with such a small number of batteries coming in initially, companies are faced with some serious financial barriers to handling NiMH batteries. Duff says the low number of initial returns could not support a facility dedicated solely to recycling the NiMH batteries. "So initial set-up capital requirements would require a substantial long-term payback of these costs and would, in the short term, drive up the recycling costs of these batteries," Duff says.

For a company like Inmetco, which is already equipped to deal in a wide variety of batteries, the financial risk isn't as great, according to Thompson. But for smaller operations with a narrower focus, handling the NiMH batteries could prove an expensive investment with little return expected for the next decade. "The numbers are [eventually] going to be big, but it's going to be awhile before the batteries start coming back," he says.

A BRIGHT FUTURE. The emergence of nickel-metal hydride batteries on the recycling scene is somewhat of a new frontier. Thompson says that with American gas prices hovering around $2 per gallon, the numbers of gas-electric hybrid cars is bound to go up.

In fact, if the sales of HEVs keep gaining strength at their current rates, Paul predicts recyclers might not have to wait 10 years to benefit from recycling NiMH batteries after all. Regardless, with more NiMH batteries reaching their end of life and with the high value of nickel, the batteries present a potentially lucrative opportunity for recyclers in the near future.

"It will pay off in 10 years," says Thompson. "The market will be much more attractive." In the mean time, he says, recyclers must get ready for it. "It's not that there's no clue how to do it," Thompson says. "We're just trying to figure out how to do it most efficiently."

The author is assistant editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via e-mail at


Total Logistics Inc., headquartered in Milwaukee, has been awarded a multiyear contract to deliver automotive batteries for Johnson Controls Inc. in the southeastern region of the United States.

Logistic services will be provided by Integrated Transportation Logistics LLC (ITLX), a certified Minority Business Enterprise in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Total Logistics holds a substantial minority ownership interest in ITLX.

The agreement between ITLX and Johnson Controls Automotive Systems Group calls for ITLX to deliver automotive batteries from a Johnson Controls plant to customers throughout the Southeast.

ITLX will use an initial fleet of 25 to 30 tractors for this project and will deliver to retail locations and distribution centers. The company also will provide reverse logistics services, retrieving used products and delivering them to recycling centers.


Even with hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and the NiMH batteries that power them muscling in, lead-acid batteries still hold the lion's share of the battery recycling market,

"The recycling rate for batteries dwarfs that of other commodities," says Brian McIver, spokesperson for battery recycling company Nova PB Inc., Ste-Catherine, Quebec, Canada.

The high rate of recycling is owed in part to intense state regulation, according to the Battery Council International, Chicago.

And for the first time in a long time, lead prices are up, demand is strong and supply is tight, Malcolm Nordstrom, senior vice president of commercial operations for RSR Corp., Dallas, says.

The London Metal Exchange has lead floating at just below $1,000 per metric ton, Nordstrom says. Third quarter LME figures show lead steadily above $900 per metric ton, and the commodity has seen a steady increase in price, climbing up from $757 in January 2004.

McIver says the high prices have been affected by demand in the Far East, particularly China. But while the high returns are a boon for the sellers' market, the high cost has buyers of primary and secondary lead cutting back, McIver says.

The booming auto market doesn't necessarily equal booming battery sales, according to McIver. He says that as of October, nearly 110 million batteries were shipped in 2004 and only 20.6 percent of those were for new cars.

"The natural assumption would be that higher auto sales would equal higher battery sales, but it's important to understand that most batteries sold are replacement batteries," he says.

And as batteries get better, the demand for replacements starts to wane.

"It has not been a phenomenal year for battery sales," McIver says. The high price of lead has a lot to do with it, and so do weather and technological improvements that are lengthening the life of car batteries, McIver says.

"It's nice to see strong new car sales," he says. "But it's nothing compared to a real strong cold or warm snap."

Traditionally, extreme heat or cold has wreaked havoc on car batteries, sending owners in droves for replacements. But Nordstrom says today's batteries are much more resistant to Mother Nature. "Manufacturers have learned how to get around that," he says. "You just don't see 'battery season' like you used to."

In addition, McIver says the typical lifespan for a lead-acid battery has grown from three to five years to six to eight, hampering demand for the replacements that make up most of the market.

Lead's jump in price has been a somewhat unexpected variable--it's been one of the lowest priced base metals for years," McIver says. He says it might take time for the market to even out.

"What we've seen in 2004 is a dramatic upturn in international prices," he says. "Clearly, there's been significant growth in demand out of China, and there's a huge catch-up that has to occur."
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Comment:New kid in town: the emergence of hybrid-fueled cars could boost the number of nickel-metal hydride batteries in the recycling stream.
Author:Gubeno, Jackie
Publication:Recycling Today
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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