Honda Introduces Rare Earth Metal Recovery Tech for Old Hybrid Car Batteries

Posted by Stephen On Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Hybrid sales are booming all over the world, but particularly in Japan — where it is expected that hybrids may exceed 20% of all new cars sold in 2012.

Honda itself has sold around 800,000 hybrids since introducing its first hybrid vehicle in 1999, and of these 500,000 were sold between 2009 and 2011.

So sales are accelerating. But this is happening in tandem with a couple of related problems: First, how to source enough rare earth metals in the face of exponentially accelerating demand. Secondly, what to do with the expiring batteries of hybrids as these cars start to reach the end of their useful lives.

Honda says it has found the answer to both of these questions — recycling.

It sounds obvious, but Honda is the first maker claiming to be able to do this on the industrial scale that will be increasingly necessary in the coming years.

A typical hybrid car battery weighs in at 20 kilograms and uses several kilograms of the rare earth metal nickel (as nickel-metal hydride – or NiMH / Ni-MH). Rare earth metals like nickel are largely sourced from China, a country that has become increasingly protective of its natural resources as its domestic demand has increased. Japan, on the other hand, tends to be resource-poor, making reliance on foreign supplies an increasingly risky choice for car makers selling ever-growing numbers of hybrids and EVs.

Under the Honda system, batteries are recovered from hybrids through Honda’s dealer network and are sent off to  Japan Metals & Chemicals Co., Ltd.‘s Oguni plant in Yamagata where the battery is disassembled and over 80% of the rare earth metals recovered for reuse.

The recovery process itself works with so-called Mischmetall  (which literally means “mixed metals”) used for the negative electrode in the battery. After the battery is dismantled, this is fired at high temperature and ground up. The rare earth metal portion melts and can then be extracted. The purity of the metal is then of the same level as it would be if it had been mined.

With just 1,034 hybrid vehicle batteries recycled in Japan during the 2010 – 2011 financial year period, this sector is expected to experience very strong growth as increasing numbers of hybrids reach the ends of their useful lives.

After all, what’s the point of having a “green” car if its demise is a decidedly environmentally unfriendly event?

Source: Nikkei (Japanese)

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