More Big Batteries Enter Recycling Stream
By: Mike Breslin

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.

Even today with lithium-ion batteries much in the news relating to powering EVs, lead-acid batteries are required for most EVs for starting, lighting and ignition. EVs will simply not start without them. And, lead-acid batteries still lead the field as the lowest cost of energy and power output per kilowatt hour.

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.

Another study by Navigant Research predicts a steady increase in sales of EVs, particularly those using lithium ion batteries. According to the study, worldwide revenue from lithium-ion batteries for EVs will grow from less than $6 billion in 2014 to over $26 billion in 2023. In the short term, however, the most significant impact for recyclers may not be  from EVs, but from large-scale energy storage installations.

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. Donna Snyder, vice president of marketing and advertising at East Penn explained some of the hazards:

“Mixing lithium batteries with lead-acid batteries is a serious and potentially very dangerous situation. In the past, it was fairly easy to visually identify the difference between them. Now, it is common to replace battery chemistries in applications without being able to discern the differences. There are known safety considerations specific to the transport of lithium ion batteries. To now have them commingled with lead-acid batteries, which have different packaging requirements, creates the possibility of significantly more transportation incidents. In addition, if the chemistries are not easily identifiable, there is the potential for improper disposal and incidents in landfills across North America.”

Growing energy storage
Governments have forecast that their energy demands will double over the next decade and utilities are investing heavily in smart-grid technology in order to meet the huge demand for power forecast to be needed by 2020. This increased investment in the smart grid is driving the growth of the battery market because they are increasingly being used in massive numbers to store electricity for backup power to help stabilize the grid, not only when outages occur, but also to bal­ance-out intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. As a result, part of the Federal investment in smart grid technology is likely to be directed toward the battery market.

U.S. electric utilities are also being pressed by public utility commissions to increase power storage capacity to deal with grid failure caused by equipment failures, weather related events and possible terrorist attacks. Late last year, California adopted the nation’s first energy storage mandate. The state’s three investor-owned utilities must collectively buy 1.3 gigawatts, or 1,325 megawatts, of energy storage capacity by the end of 2020. That is roughly enough energy to supply nearly one million homes. Different storage technologies have different rates at which they can accept and discharge energy, but lead-acid batteries are likely to be part of the solution due to economics and practicality.

Lead-acid batteries are used in stationary applications by electric utilities, telephone companies, computer centers, hospitals and the like to provide critical back up power to systems that need an uninterrupted power supply. These batteries are usually not called upon to deliver power often, but when they do, they need to deliver a lot of power, quickly and for a long enough time so reserve power generators can take over.

Microgrids, like one being built in Rutland, Vermont are modern, small-scale versions of the centralized electricity system. They are designed to achieve specific local goals, such as reliability, carbon emission reduction, the wider distribution and diversification of energy sources, and cost reductions. This microgrid, for example, will have four megawatts of battery storage, using both lithium ion and lead acid batteries to integrate solar generation into the local grid, and provide backup power in case of a grid outage.

Worldwide, Navigant Research forecasts that revenue from deployments of microgrids which were just under $10 billion in 2013 will increase to more than $40 billion by 2020.

To get a better understanding on the use of batteries by electric utilities, American Recycler News called upon Haresh Kamath, program manager for energy storage at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). EPRI is a nonprofit organization funded by the electric utility industry that conducts research on issues related to electric power.

“The uses for lead-acid batteries are growing,” says Kamath. “They are being used more on the grid than they have been. Historically, they’ve been used in backup power, but more recently they are being used for frequency-regulation type applications and localized peak shaving, which is something we have not seen in the past. A lot of this is being driven by the low price of lead-acid batteries and their ready availability, as well as increased value for those kinds of services on the grid. The interest in using batteries on the grid is also being driven by the decline in the prices of batteries in general, particularly lithium-ion.”

However, lead-acid batteries are already extremely inexpensive. People looking to use lithium-ion are often surprised to learn that lead-acid can be even  less expensive.

“For solar solutions on the customer side of the meter, there are definitely applications for batteries, lead acid and other sorts. There are also large scale battery applications for both wind and solar, especially on islands like Hawaii and Puerto Rico where there are just a few traditional generators feeding the grid and there are few ways to balance the upswings and downswings of the variability of solar or wind without having some sort of storage. On island-type networks there’s very strong value for battery backup. On our mainland grid you don’t have the same kind of battery value because generators are relatively small compared to the entire size of the grid, so you get a lot of stability from just geographic dispersion.

“There’s still some value in having energy storage on the grid – even on a large one. In particular, if you have a residential solar array with battery backup, it allows you to have more reliable power for yourself and not put power on the grid when it’s not needed. This actually makes the grid stronger, more distributed and the homeowner more resilient.”

Lead-acid batteries have an early and strong hold in the energy storage market because of lower cost and recycling advantages, and there are many large-scale demonstration projects completed by electric utilities across the country.

“Lead-acid is one of the most mature technologies,” Kamath continued. “There has been a couple of large demonstration, lead-acid battery storage projects sponsored by the Department of Energy. There’s one in New Mexico of 10 megawatts and another 10 megawatts in New Jersey,” Kamath concluded.

The world’s second largest battery by rated power is an advanced lead-acid battery in Goldsmith, Texas. This 36 megawatt battery system is used to manage intermittency at the 153 megawatt Notrees Wind Power Farm project in western Texas and provides regulation service in the Texas wholesale power market.

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.

“When you get about 10 percent of the grid power coming for renewables then you really have to have some kind of grid storage to compensate for when wind and solar power are weak,” said Dr. Ellis. “I think that sector is going to grow, but the bigger opportunity right now for lead-acids is probably in frequency matching or regulation because the grid has to stay in electrical balance. The problem is with conductive losses across the grid that moves the frequency around, which isn’t good for motors and other electrical equipment. So frequency regulation is really a big growth area in the new smart grid where they can manage the power cables better, particularly using the new ultra batteries with integrated super capacitors.”

RSR collects batteries in two basic ways. They purchase from scrap metal dealers, collectors, car wreckers in what RSR calls buy-sell – they buy the scrap, convert it into lead and sell the lead. The other way is toll converting where RSR is supplied feedstock by battery companies that collect their own scrap and sends it to RSR for conversion into lead which is sold back.

“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.

“Remember, the lead industry is very interesting because lead is the most recycled metal on the planet. And, a significant amount in the western world is accumulated in the economy. Everybody in the economy owns, nominally, about 150 pounds of lead because lead is used all over the place like in forklifts, cell phone towers, grid regulation and in cars. That’s really a direct need that everyone in the country shares. The problem is when you get into applications where weight is an issue, like with electrified vehicles, because lead is heavy. Remember, fork-trucks, mining equipment and golf carts mostly all use lead-acid batteries.

“But lead-acid batteries are still needed in most electric vehicles for starting, lighting and ignition applications; even though the main traction battery may be lithium-ion. For example, the Honda Insight, the Toyota Prius and the Chevy Volt all have lead-acid batteries that take care of what is called the “hoteling mode” and also used to make sure the lithium-ion batteries stay charged. In fact, there are some European premium electric cars that have two lead-acid batteries, one to handle the start-stop functions and another for hoteling loads like making sure the radio and the GPS have power. Lead-acid batteries are probably in 99.9 percent of the vehicles built in the world, including the electrics.

“One thing that battery recyclers really need to know is that mixing non-lead acid chemistry with lead-acid chemistry is a major safety problem. The International Lead Association did a survey of their members. Of the 26 members surveyed, 25 had either fires or exposure incidents where lithium-ion batteries got into the lead-acid collections. The two chemistries are not compatible. Mixing them can result in fire and explosions.

“I also head-up the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Battery Recycling Committee and it’s a big, important issue now because there are lithium-ion batteries that look just like lead-acid batteries. At RSR we handle a hundred thousand batteries per day and it’s extremely difficult to tell which one is which. We rely on the people we buy scrap from to segregate the different types.

“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.

“Because lithium-ion batteries have very little, if any, scrap value, they have to be paid for to be disposed. If there is cobalt or nickel in them, people will take them because there is some value. But if they are manganese-oxide or iron-phosphate batteries, the steel smelters don’t even want them because they cause problems in making steel. Most of these have to be paid to be disposed, and the cost can be very high.

“Some batteries have labels on them to identify what type they are, but it’s not very consistently done. If you open up a big battery case from an electric vehicle, the outside case may be marked as to what type of battery it is, assuming the label is still there, but the individual cells inside may not be marked. It makes it more difficult for recyclers to gather whatever value they can.

“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.

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