Honda Motor Co., Ltd. / Japan Metals & Chemicals Co., Ltd. / Matsuda Sangyo Co., Ltd.
How three companies crossed industry borders to recycle lithium-ion batteries and create a more circular economy
Lithium-ion batteries, used in hybrid and other electric vehicles, are renowned for being difficult to recycle. But three Japanese companies — Honda, battery materials and alloys manufacturer Japan Metals & Chemicals Co., Ltd., and precious metals recycler and waste processor Matsuda Sangyo Co., Ltd. — have combined their unique expertise to develop an advanced recycling technology that brings them a major step toward commercializing the process. Here, we follow the steps their joint project has taken in creating a way to safely process and recycle the growing volume of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries as a viable resource.
Lithium-ion batteries — used in everything from digital devices to automobiles
Laptops, smartphones, and other digital devices have become essential tools for modern living. And a high-performance battery known as the lithium-ion battery has become a critical part of these portable electronic devices.
Until the mid-1980s, most household batteries were single-use cells (primary cells), such as zinc-carbon batteries and alkaline batteries. These were followed by compact rechargeable batteries (secondary cells) such as nickel-cadmium batteries and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. Then, in 1991, the first high-capacity, compact and lightweight lithium-ion batteries were marketed, subsequently making their way into an array of devices such as mobile phones and laptops.
In the automotive industry meanwhile, the first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle appeared on the market in the late 1990s, marking the start of vehicle electrification. Initially these vehicles were powered by NiMH batteries, but as the demand for higher-performance batteries grew, lithium-ion batteries were adopted starting around 2010.
At Honda, the partially updated 2012 CR-Z was the first hybrid vehicle in Japan to employ a lithium-ion battery. Today, all Honda electric vehicles — hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell — use lithium-ion batteries to power the motor.
Due to its superior characteristics over conventional secondary cells in terms of size, weight, and capacity, the lithium-ion battery has thus become a mainstream component in everything from portable digital devices to electric vehicles.
In 2012 the Honda CR-Z became the first hybrid in Japan to use a lithium-ion battery
Cut-away model of the lithium-ion battery used in the CR-Z
Lithium-ion batteries, which have two to five times the energy density of other secondary cells, are used in various devices because of their compactness, light weight, and high capacity
Concern over the current state of lithium-ion battery recycling
Tomokazu Abe, General Manager, Cyclical Resource Promotion Division, Customer First Operations, Honda Motor Co., Ltd.
One technology developed for recycling end-of-life lithium-ion batteries was to incinerate them and use the remaining slag as a base course material for constructing roads
Since debuting the lithium-ion battery in the CR-Z, Honda has actively used lithium-ion batteries to power its new hybrid vehicles, such as the Fit Hybrid and Vezel. This was based on Honda’s judgment that lithium-ion batteries were the most suitable choice for hybrid vehicles given the advantages they bring to power and fuel economy.
However, in 2014, there was someone at Honda who had mixed feelings about the rising use of lithium-ion batteries. That someone was Tomokazu Abe, now general manager of Honda’s Cyclical Resource Promotion Division.
“The spread of lithium-ion batteries was a trend happening throughout the automobile industry, not just at Honda. In the near future we were going to have an enormous volume of lithium-ion batteries reach end-of-life. These batteries contain rare metals such as cobalt and nickel, and yet at the time no recycling method existed that could extract these metals for effective reuse. The material recycling of lithium-ion batteries was about to become an issue the entire automobile industry would have to address,” says Abe.
Unlike the small batteries in computers and other consumer electronics, the giant lithium-ion batteries used in cars were considered too difficult to recycle. Technically, it was possible to the extract cobalt and nickel, but their small quantities made implementing the process at scale largely unprofitable. No recycling businesses came forward.
Abe continues: “The easiest way to process lithium-ion batteries is to incinerate and dispose of them, but all that valuable material goes to waste. Some technologies came out that were intended to solve this, one being to use the slag from incinerated batteries as a base course material (an intermediate layer in road construction, located between the soil and the surface pavement). But all were far from the ideal, which is to effectively close the loop on scarce resources such as nickel and cobalt.”
Lamenting this situation, in 2014 Abe resolved to do something about it.
“Creating a circular economy requires that we go beyond the walls that separate companies and industries, that lead us to prioritize competition and think only in terms of what each company can do alone, and instead find solutions through collaboration. As a member of an industry that makes vehicles that use lithium-ion batteries, I felt we had a responsibility to unite with other industries and establish a method of recycling batteries as a resource.”