Big Batteries Enter Recycling Stream

When people think about big batteries, they usually think about lead-acid automotive batteries, but these are only one type of battery coming to scrap yards these days, like those from electric vehicles (EVs) and from backup storage arrays.

While larger batteries represent a significant opportunity for recycling, recyclers must become more aware of the differences between lead acid and other chemistries in order to be safe, responsible and profitable.

Different Chemistries

Most recyclers know how to handle lead-acid batteries. Lead-acid batteries are the most recycled product in America. According to the Battery Council International, 97 percent of battery lead is recycled and a typical new battery contains 60 to 80 percent recycled lead and plastic. Lead-acid batteries are a “closed-loop” process with a 99 percent recycling rate. Compare that with a recycling rate of 75 percent for scrap tires, 66 percent for paper and 55 percent for aluminum.

According to a study by Sandler Research, the lead-acid battery market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 3.5 percent from 2013 through 2018. Battery industry experts predict even stronger growth. According to the study, one major market driver is the development of absorbent glass mat (AGM) lead-acid batteries, which are virtually maintenance free.

But lead acid batteries are no longer the only game in town. Other chemistries, particularly large, lithium-ion batteries are entering the recycling stream.

But with more battery chemistries to be recycled, there will be problems. East Penn Manufacturing, a privately-held company, operates the world’s largest single site, lead-acid battery manufacturing facility and markets more than 450 types of batteries and related products. 

From a Smelter’s Perspective:

There are relatively few lead-acid battery smelters because it requires a very good understanding of recycling and experience to be able to handle this toxic material safely.

Timothy W. Ellis, Ph.D. is president of RSR Technologies, headquartered in Dallas, Texas. RSR Corporation is an independent, privately-held secondary lead smelting company that operates lead acid battery recycling facilities in California, Indiana, and New York. RSR ensures that lead-acid batteries are recycled into refined lead without harming people or the environment.

“I also think there’s a future for lead-acid batteries in mild-hybrid electric vehicles, that some people call the 48-volt mode or 60-volt mode,” Ellis predicted. “This is where you have a lead-acid battery, one to two kilowatts in size that provides a little bit of electrical assist on acceleration. Much like a Honda Insight, but it does not have much of a range on electric power only. I think that’s pretty good, because the cost of the car purchase is what’s important.”

Ellis continues:

“All these battery technologies are eventually going to show up at scrap yards. But now you have issues with these big, lithium-ion batteries and these new advanced automotive super capacitors. There’s a lot of juice in them. If someone grabs one wrong, like a Chevy Volt lithium-ion battery, with a front-end loader, or grapple, it could short-out and cause serious problems. I think the dismantlers are going to have real safety and segregation issues in handling, storage and shipping. You also don’t want these to get into a crusher, shredder or hammer-mill.”

A lithium-ion traction-battery for a Nissan Leaf all-electric vehicle, for example, weighs 600 lbs.

“As lithium-ion batteries get more common in smaller formats, like automotive sized batteries, e-bikes, motorcycles and utility batteries, the recyclers begin to have problems as these types come in the door,” Ellis warns. “Their suppliers may not segregate different types. Spent lead-acid batteries are purchased on the open market because the lead has value. For the lithium-ion battery the elemental value is relatively low.

“Frankly, I would like people from the scrap recycling industry to join our SAE Battery Recycling Committee so we can all get maximum value from recycling all types of large batteries and protect ourselves from hazardous incidents in mixing battery chemistries,” Ellis urged.

Sullivan’s Scrap Metals pays top dollar for your scrap metal at both  Bucks and Philadelphia, PA locations. Please contact us today if you have any further questions regarding the  type of metals we buy and recycle. Call (215) 442-1504