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Photo courtesy of General Motors

Project targets end-of-life EV battery packs

An Automotive Recyclers Association Edge 2020 session recaps the project for determining reuse options for these batteries.

November 25, 2020

In 2019, Team Store Packs Umicore, comprised of that company as well as Schnitzer Steel Industries, United Catalyst Corp., Phoenix Automotive Cores, Spiers New Technologies Inc. (SPN) and Cox Automotive, was awarded a $67,000 grant through Phase 1 of the Battery Recycling Prize. The prize aims to reclaim and recycle critical materials from lithium-based battery technology by focusing on cost-effective recycling processes to recover as much economic value as possible from spent lithium-ion batteries. 

Team participants offered more information on the project in the session All About Electrical Vehicle Battery Packs and Implications for Auto Recyclers during the Automotive Recyclers Association Edge 2020 virtual event in mid-November.

Only 5 percent of end-of-life (EOL) electric vehicle (EV) battery packs are recycled, according to the team. The goal is to increase that to 90 percent in the next five to 10 years by creating a new supply chain for EV battery packs that includes end-to-end collection infrastructure and specialized sorting and evaluation of the EV batteries to determine viable second-life options. Those EV batteries that cannot be reused will be delivered to recyclers such as Umicore for processing.  

Team members will seek to share best practices for properly handling, storing and transporting the battery packs to protect human and environmental health with the wider automotive recycling industry.

Mark Caffarey, president of Umicore USA in North Carolina, said it is important to optimize second-use opportunities for some battery packs because they don’t contain high-value precious metals.

The partners have completed Phase I of the project, which involved developing the concept, and are in Phase II, which consists of prototyping. If Team Store Packs wins Phase II, it will receive a $100,00 voucher to use within the American Made Network or at the U.S. National Labs, Caffarey said. The final phase of the project is pilot evaluation.

He added that while the project is led by Umicore, SNT, Oklahoma City,  is “the most important part of our partnership” because the company can determine second-life options for battery packs and their value “before they get presented to recyclers.”

Caffarey says the project’s collection network targets the 10,000 automotive recyclers in the U.S., which he described as the “missing link in the battery recycling chain.”

Collection sites are or soon will be available in Atlanta; Greenville, South Carolina; Houston; Phoenix; Oklahoma City; Sacramento, California; and New York state.

Regarding the drop-off sites, he said, “What we want to do is assure that each site has proper certifications and approvals” to safely handle and store the battery packs, including those from the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation and National Fire Protection Association. “Lithium-ion batteries remain dangerous because of the higher voltage and the higher energies that are inside the battery packs,” Caffarey said.  

SNT and Cox Automotive, Georgia, will work with Idaho National Lab to create a device to measure the health of the EV battery packs. This device, Caffarey said, would identify which batteries could have a second life and which would be destined for recycling, potentially saving time and money by evaluating the batteries as soon as they enter the network.

Becky Berube, president of United Catalyst Corp., Greenville, said, auto recyclers have batteries they don’t know what to do with and are in need of a solution. “As Mark has said, the commercial model has not been very viable for being a large source of revenue.

“What we are really, really focused on is how we can provide a place for you to send your materials safely—I know a lot of you are storing them at your facilities—and where a credit be given,” she added.

The team is working to set up a collection network where auto recyclers can send their materials “without liability,” Berube said. “As a revenue model develops, you’ll already be partnered with right team to get you whatever they can get you for those that are positive,” she continued. “Right now, that is not completely known.”

Dirk Spiers of SNT said his company does life cycle management of battery packs, including logistics, warehousing and remanufacturing.

He said EV battery packs can find second lives in many applications, including energy storage in wind farms and solar arrays.

“Grading is key,” he said of the battery packs, “because then you know how good they are. You know the architecture—what kind of thing you can build with it—and also the value,” Spiers added.

Value also can be found in the battery pack components. He said, “An OEM has to support the vehicle 10 or 15 years since it’s out of production.”

Spiers said, “A battery pack is always like a fish. If you handle it well, and it has a low state of charge, and you don’t leave it in the hot sun outside to boil, then there can be value in the battery pack. If it has a high state of charge, and you leave it outside in the sun for a week, then it is going to rot. There is no value whatsoever any more in those cells.”

Spiers advised auto recyclers use caution when handling battery packs. “You don’t want to drop them. You don’t want to keep them in a too warm environment.” He added, “One warning: Don’t open it up. Lithium-ion is not unsafe, but you have to treat it with respect.”

Spiers said it’s better to store and ship battery packs when they are in a low state of charge. While higher temperatures cause the batteries to lose their charge faster, he added that this is not the best way to reduce the battery’s charge.

SNT is developing a computer program, ALFRED, that tracks everything in the battery pack. Spiers said it should be running within a year. With the program, auto recyclers will be able to scan the VIN (vehicle identification number) of the EV or the serial number of the battery pack to learn more about it, such as its chemistry and voltage.