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Recycling rare earth metals from batteries

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Toyota has sold nearly 3 million Prius hybrid-drive automobiles, each of which contains a battery pack that has more than 20 lbs. of an exotic metal called lanthanum. Lanthanum, like most of the 17 so-called rare earth elements, primarily comes from China, which has recently tightened export quotas. Special properties of rare earth metals make them highly useful for batteries, magnets and electric motors, and China wants to reserve them for its domestic industries.

Tension between rising demand for lanthanum, which has been infrequently used in products before now, and uncertain supply has created growing interest in finding ways to recycle the millions of batteries that will be coming out of hybrid and plug-in electric cars using nickel-metal hydride batteries. There are plenty of precedents.

Conventional lead-acid 12-volt automobile batteries are among the globe’s most recycled products. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that more than 90 percent of the 100 million lead-acid batteries replaced each year in the United States are recycled.

Lead-acid batteries are highly recyclable. Nearly all the lead can be recycled into new batteries or other products. The sulfuric acid electrolyte can be converted for use in fertilizer and elsewhere. The cases, made of plastic, can also be recycled. In addition to well established technology and processes for turning used batteries into new products, there is a nearly universal collection system consisting of retailers who sell new batteries.

Recycling of lithium used in batteries is not as widespread but is still fairly well developed. Lithium, which is not a rare earth metal and is primarily sourced from Chile rather than China, is also used in many rechargeable batteries including some electric vehicles. The low cost of virgin mined lithium makes recycling lithium-ion batteries less economically attractive than conventional lead-acid batteries. Still, San Diego-based Kinsbursky Brothers has, with the help of a $9.5 million Department of Energy grant to its Toxco subsidiary, been building a plant in Lancaster, Ohio that will be able to process large volumes of lithium-ion car batteries when it opens later this year.

The situation is very different with nickel metal hydride car batteries containing lanthanum. While a number of initiatives are underway to set up systems for collecting and processing these batteries to recover the lanthanum, few are past the experimental stage and none are in full production.

Honda recently began working with Japan Metals & Chemicals Co. to extract the lanthanum from nickel-metal hydride vehicle batteries used in its hybrid-drive vehicles. The automaker will collect the batteries and ship them to a central facility for processing. Like other nickel-metal hydride battery recyclers, Honda had been recycling the nickel for production of stainless steel, but not the lanthanum. The new process extracts 80 percent or more of the rare earth metals contained in used nickel-metal hydride batteries, the company said. “Our goal is to reuse extracted rare earth metals not only for nickel-metal hydride batteries but also for a wide range of our products including motorcycles, automobiles and power products,” company spokesperson Marco Frommer said.

Belgian material technology company Umicore has developed a process that, in broad outline, works similarly to the one described by Honda, in that it concentrates rare earth metals in the stream of materials from battery recycling to a level similar to that of mined ore. Working with a French company, Umicore has demonstrated its process and is building a new recycling facility in Europe.

Mark Caffarey, a North Carolina-based executive vice president at Umicore, said the European facility will be able to handle 150,000 electric vehicle batteries per year. In the U.S., the company has a North Carolina dismantling facility to prepare batteries for shipment to Europe for processing. They will add additional dismantling facilities in North America as needed, Caffarey said.

Kinsbursky’s foray into recycling rare earth metals from batteries is also about to get under way. Construction of the plant building is complete, according to the company, and they are now acquiring equipment. “We should have battery lines in place and in operation by the end of the year,” president Steven Kinsburksy said.

The Recycling Cost-Benefit Equation

One of the benefits of recycling rare earth metals from batteries is that a supply of recycled lanthanum should be more reliable than relying on virgin Chinese sources. Recycling also uses less energy and emits less carbon dioxide than mining. The economics are less firm, but Caffarey said there is a financial justification for recycling rare earths. While pricing for lanthanum is less clear than for nickel and cobalt, which also are obtained from recycling batteries, that may not always be the case.

“Who knows what the value of those materials is going to be in 10 years’ time,” Caffarey said. “I do believe it will be going up, because we’re consuming more and more devices that need these materials. So to be able to give these elements another life is definitely of value.”

Regulatory obstacles to recycling are not a major problem at present, especially in the U.S. where applicable regulations are almost non-existent compared to Europe, according to Caffarey. “If there are regulations in the U.S., they’re more on a state-by-state level than across the nation,” he notes. “An unclear regulatory environment doesn’t help industry develop something. So that could be a barrier.”

A bigger issue is the volume of materials to be recycled. Electric vehicle batteries have a useful life of at least 10 years. As a result, only now are the first used hybrid batteries from the Prius, which entered the global market in 2000, entering the recycling stream. And, notes Kinsbursky executive vice president Todd Coy, it wasn’t until 2005 that hybrid vehicle sales really took off. So it will be at least another couple of years before volumes of rare earth-containing batteries are sufficient to reach commercially viable levels.

There is also some question about who will pay for recycling efforts. With the exception of some elements such as cobalt, the components in the batteries are not reliably valuable enough to pay for the recycling. Producers such as automakers will likely be asked to help make up the difference, Caffarey said.

Right now, recycling of the rare earth contained in electric-drive vehicle batteries is in its infancy. But indications are electric-drive battery recycling will expand quickly, perhaps rivaling the size and success of that of lead-acid batteries. Said Caffarey, “I see in the coming years, a bright future for a recycling process that allows recovery of the nickel and the rare earth.”