What becomes of old hybrid and EV batteries?

Graphic image of EV plugged in to battery

Tim Nicholson

Posted April 14, 2021

As electric and hybrid vehicles grow in popularity, the race is on to keep their used batteries out of landfill.

With the rapid growth in sales of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles, especially in  China and Europe, one of the biggest environmental challenges is what to do with their batteries when they come to the end of their life. Finding alternative ways to reuse the batteries is becoming increasingly urgent, with Bloomberg NEF predicting that the global stockpile of used EV batteries will exceed 3.4 million by 2025, compared with just 55,000 in 2018.  

Recycling programs for batteries from regular petrol and diesel cars have been around for some time. These lead-acid batteries typically last three to five years and most car workshops, scrap-metal dealers and service stations will accept old batteries for recycling. Century Batteries, which has a national network of recycling centres, says 98 per cent of a lead-acid battery can be reclaimed through recycling, with the lead, plastic and acid components re-processed into products such as road guideposts, cabling and detergents. 

But what becomes of hybrid and EV batteries once their on-road life is over? 

Hybrid batteries

Hybrid batteries deteriorate over time, which can affect charge times, mileage and overall performance of the vehicle. Typically, hybrid vehicle manufacturers cover batteries under warranty for about eight years or 160,000 kilometres – whichever comes first – but the precise lifespan of a hybrid battery will depend on a range of factors including the number of kilometres on the clock, how the vehicle was driven and if it was properly serviced and maintained.  

Hybrid vehicles combine an internal-combustion petrol engine with a battery that’s made up of 20 to 40 modules housing anywhere from 120 to 240 nickel-metal or lithium-ion cells, depending on the make and model. It’s when these cells start to degrade that you need to consider replacing the battery. Signs that the battery is on the way out include poor fuel economy, faster depletion of the battery, clunky driving conditions, or the petrol engine kicking in much earlier than before.  

The good news is that hybrid batteries can be remanufactured and reused by specialist technicians. Several independent EV and hybrid battery repair specialists stock genuine aftermarket and refurbished hybrid batteries for sale, and now Melbourne-based electronics company Injectronics, is planning to launch Australia’s first large-scale hybrid battery remanufacturing exchange program. 

The company plans to re-engineer used batteries and sell them at around 60 to 80 per cent of the price of a new hybrid battery. A replacement new hybrid battery from Toyota Australia can cost $2500 to $3400 fitted, depending on the model, so this represents a decent saving. 

Currently, Injectronics has the capability to remanufacture nickel-metal-hydride batteries which are found in Toyota hybrid models including the Camry, Prius, Corolla and RAV4, as well as Lexus models. Lithium-ion batteries used in Subaru hybrids and in most EVs are not yet covered by the program, but the company is looking into this. 

For batteries that are beyond repair, Toyota Australia has a hybrid battery recycling program that it claims keeps 98 per cent of the battery materials out of landfill. The company says nearly every component of its hybrid batteries can be recycled.  

Metal covers, associated metal parts and plastic components are recycled locally, the battery cells are exported in EPA-approved sealed containers for recovery of base metals, and the printed circuit boards are exported for recovery of copper, lead, gold and silver. Toyota offers a $100 cash rebate when a hybrid battery is returned, or a discount of $500 off the purchase of a replacement hybrid battery when you return the old one. 

Bloomberg NEF predicts the global stockpile of used EV batteries will exceed 3.4 million by 2025. Photo: Injectronics
Hybrid and EV batteries can be remanufactured and repurposed for a different application, such as to power street lights or store rooftop solar. Photo: Injectronics

EV batteries 

As with hybrids, it’s impossible to know exactly how long an EV battery will last, but most manufacturers offer an eight-year warranty.  

When EV batteries come to the end of their life, they can be remanufactured and repurposed for a second life in a different application. While batteries in household items like laptops and mobile phones have just one life, EV batteries can retain 70 to 80 per cent of their original capacity. Although no longer appropriate for powering an electric vehicle, that’s more than enough capacity for less-demanding applications such as renewable energy storage and emergency backup power. 

EV manufacturers including BMW, Volkswagen Group, Renault, Nissan and Hyundai are exploring different ways to use EV batteries in their second life, including for residential, commercial and grid-scale energy storage. Nissan, for example, uses old batteries to power street lighting in Japan, while battery modules from Volvo hybrids have been used to store rooftop solar to power elevators and lights. GM backs up its Michigan data centre using old Chevrolet Volt batteries.  

Australian company Relectrify repurposes end-of-life EV batteries into secondary uses, via partnerships with the Volkswagen Group and 4R Energy (a subsidiary of Nissan). 

Eventually, second-life batteries run out of juice for good, but even then they can be recycled for their raw materials such as nickel, lithium, cobalt and manganese. Volkswagen says about 70 per cent of the raw materials from its batteries can be reclaimed, and it’s hoping to increase that to just under 100 per cent soon. EV giant Tesla’s battery cells, modules and battery packs are recycled at end of life, rather than getting a second use. Locally, Envirostream, a subsidiary of lithium battery cathode maker and exporter, Lithium Australia, recycles end-of-life battery components to create a true circular economy for batteries. 

When it comes to regulation relating to end-of-life EV batteries, Australia is lagging other more advanced markets. China – the world’s biggest EV market by some margin – is developing policy to track the life of EV batteries and support recovery and recycling plants, while Europe has made car manufacturers responsible for the life cycles of their EV batteries. 

But Campbell James, head of product innovation and engineering with RACV’s car battery partner, Club Assist, believes there is reason to be optimistic. He says while it is important to continue to develop technology to extend the life of EV batteries and to increase options for repurposing and recycling at the end of their life, Club Assist research indicates that the environmental impact of EV batteries is already low and continually improving.

He adds that further environmental benefits will come as EV batteries play an increasing role in integrating renewable energy into our everyday lives. He says emerging “vehicle-to-grid” technology will enable an EV to be charged using rooftop solar energy during the day, with the car battery acting as a store for energy that can be returned to the grid or used to power household needs at night.  “It truly is an exciting time as the way we capture, store and use energy continues to evolve towards a sustainable future.”