By Marty Hollingshead • ARA President
The Wild, Wild West
The one great thing that came out of this conference as auto recyclers was how the OEMs, mainly GM, said that we are the ones that will be handling all of these vehicles at end of life, and how they need to work with us. They even went so far as to call us “superheroes” in this new space.
Sandy Blalock, Scott Robertson and myself recently attended the NAATBatt conference from February 7-10, 2022 in Phoenix. This conference focused on the reuse and recycling of batteries in electric vehicles. Sandy made a presentation to attendees and represented ARA at this event in an official capacity. This was a well-attended event by the OEMs, the U.S. Department of Energy, including scientists and engineers from all over the country, as well as several new and emerging companies that are focusing on battery recycling and reuse in second-life applications.
The one great thing that came out of this conference as auto recyclers was how the OEMs, mainly GM, said that we are the ones that will be handling all of these vehicles at end of life, and how they need to work with us. They even went so far as to call us “superheroes” in this new space. It is nice to see that they now see us as a viable partner, and not an adversary.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
One of the purposes of this conference was to look at the feasibility of what to do with batteries out of end-of-life electric vehicles (EV). There are several types of these batteries currently in use. The first-generation being nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, as well as new-generation, which are lithium-ion batteries. Besides second-life use, the main focus was to be able to recycle and recover rare earth materials from these batteries.
Some of the challenges that were discussed were regarding the huge increase in electric vehicles. This will obviously increase demand on the elements (rare earth materials) that are used in manufacturing them. With the present battery type in use obviously being lithium-ion, from a national security standpoint, there is concern about availability of these elements that primarily come from countries that we do not have good relationships with. The main elements used in these batteries are lithium and cobalt. These elements may very well come into short supply in the future, which is the reason for exploring different methods to recycle these batteries down to the cathode/anode level to recover these elements for reuse.
The EV industry currently is what I would describe as a cross between the Wild, Wild West and the Oklahoma Land Rush. All of these companies are trying to plant their flag to be operators in this new space. There are also many things that have yet to be figured out, for example, the methods to recycle, second-life applications, transportation, and developing new battery chemistries to possibly make a lithium- and cobalt-free battery in the future.
Obviously, from the standpoint of our industry, for recycling to be successful there has to be value in it for the auto recycler. Right now, what the future holds in store for us with these EV batteries is unclear. They could be a liability or they could have great value.
Your association, ARA, has already addressed these challenges. We offer to our auto recycler members training courses on best management practices, as well as how to safely handle, remove, and store these batteries. The main focus is on high-voltage safety and depowering the high-voltage systems in these vehicles. Besides safety procedures, we also focus on the safety equipment needed. This training and certification program is going to be critical for all auto recyclers because of the danger of putting untrained workers at risk of serious injury or death from these high-voltage vehicles and batteries.
Cultivating the Business Model
So, let’s look at what our market will be and what we will have to do to sell or recycle these EV batteries.
Our first and most profitable choice would be same-type application, i.e., selling it to go into the same type of vehicle from which it came. The second choice would be a second-life application. The final choice is going to shred for recycling. There are even companies who want to acquire these batteries for their mineral value, similar to how we process catalytic converters.
We will have to be able to assess and certify these EV batteries to be able to sell them for transportation (going into another vehicle), they will have to have a “state of health” greater than 70%. We will also have to determine if a battery is damaged or in good health to transport them for any other use, because shipping a damaged battery will pose a fire risk. There will be hardware and software needed to do this on the modular level (complete battery pack), as well as on the cellular level (individual cells).
Remember, state of health will always go to the lowest common denominator. For example, if one cell has a state of health of 50%, that will be the condition of the whole pack. So, now we will need to look at the pack on a cellular level. We may find that only one cell is at 50%, and the rest of the battery is at 85%. We would now need to replace the 50% cell with a cell that has 85% or the same state of health as the rest of the pack. This will be important because if we put in a pack that is higher than 85%, the rest of the battery will now overcharge.
If this pack is 70% or below on state of health, it can be used for second-life applications. This could be energy storage for solar systems, agriculture, as well as many other applications. If this battery is unusable, its final destination would be a battery recycler.
I think transportation will be a major issue in what the true value of these batteries will be to us. What will the cost be for moving it from point A to point B, as well as how would we have to package it, and what would be the state of charge?
ARA is YOUR Association. We are constantly working on raising awareness, as well as training and educating our members to be the best that they can be. Remember, an association is only as strong as its leadership and the participation from its members. We can either have more opportunity or more hardship. What happens all depends on our ability to evolve and improve as an industry. Do you want to have a hand in shaping your future or not? The choice is yours.
Support your state association, support ARA, the only association for auto recyclers from my perspective!
Marty Hollingshead2021-22 ARA President