In the race to put 1 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015, another challenge awaits on the other side of the finish line: recycling all of those batteries.
The Department of Energy recently awarded $9.5 million to a California-based recycling company to boost capacity for lithium-ion batteries, the kind used to power most of the new hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles entering the world market.
Toxco Inc. -- currently the only U.S.-based company able to recycle all sizes and models of lithium-ion batteries -- will use the grant to expand its recycling facility in Lancaster, Ohio, to process vehicle-grade batteries.
The facility currently processes large-format lead-acid batteries, as well as nickel-metal hydride batteries used in the current population of hybrid and electric vehicles.
The grant is part of $2.4 billion in stimulus funds awarded last month to jump-start the manufacturing and deployment of a domestic crop of vehicle batteries, part of President Obama's pledge to transition the country away from a dependency on foreign oil and foreign-made batteries.
"As the U.S. hybrid vehicle market continues to grow, Toxco will provide end-of-life management and recycling of these advanced batteries in a safe and environmentally sound manner," said Todd Coy, executive vice president of Kinsbursky Brothers Inc., Toxco's parent company.
That means batteries that power cars like Nissan Motor Co.'s Leaf, unveiled last month, or General Motors Co.'s Chevrolet Volt, due out in 2010, will likely find their way to Toxco's plant in Lancaster, where they will be transformed into scrap commodities like cobalt, copper, nickel and lithium carbonate.
Toxco's Canadian recycling facility in Trail, British Columbia, already recycles lithium-ion batteries from devices like laptop computers, industrial plants and Tesla Motors Inc.'s all-electric Roadster vehicle. The batteries are frozen to -325 degrees Fahrenheit to defuse the lithium before being sheared, shredded and separated into their constituent parts for resale.
Though lithium currently fetches very little on the open market, other components in lithium-ion batteries, such as nickel and cobalt, will make the batteries far too valuable to send to the landfill. Coy said the Lancaster plant would also be able to reclaim lithium carbonate for reuse in vehicle batteries if a market develops for the material.
Other recyclers preparing for EV revolution
As demand grows for electric vehicles, so, too, will demand for the nickel, cobalt and manganese metals that power their batteries, said Tim Weekes, spokesman for the Belgium-based materials group Umicore, which applied for U.S. stimulus funds to recycle vehicle batteries but was not awarded a grant.
"We're certainly convinced the electrification of vehicle drivetrains will happen," said Weekes, whose company expects hybrid and electric vehicles to make up about 5 percent of the world market by 2015, a volume that would offer significant new opportunities for recyclers.
Umicore is among several recycling firms looking to position themselves for what could be a major expansion in electric vehicle sales.
Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan, whose electric Leaf was unveiled this month, has said electric vehicle sales will make up 10 percent of the market by 2020, a figure equal to about 65 million units last year.