LOS ANGELES (Jan. 3, 12:20 p.m. ET) — Forget those fears that hybrid and electric vehicles will result in landfills full of dead batteries.
When Toyota hybrid battery packs reach the end of their lives, every piece is recycled. And it's all because of a program launched a year ago by Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. and its dealers.
Moreover, service departments can use the battery-handling process to help sell new vehicles to used-Prius owners.
Nickel-metal hydride battery packs for EVs and hybrids are expected to last seven to 10 years and 150,000 to 300,000 miles depending on how the vehicles are driven, said Gary Smith, Toyota corporate manager of product quality and service support.
The California Air Resources Board requires the packs to last 150,000 miles, “but that's not a magic number for us,” Smith said.
Few Toyota hybrids are near that mileage, but Smith expects the number to climb soon. About 500 battery packs expire each month. Toyota hybrids became truly popular with the launch of the second-generation Prius in 2003, meaning the rate of Toyota hybrids with high mileage will increase soon. About 1.3 million Toyota hybrids are in use.
When a hybrid battery starts to wane, a light on the vehicle instrument panel is illuminated, and the power to the wheels is reduced, Smith said.
When a dealership reports a dying battery pack, Toyota sends a reusable shipping container for the pack, which is loaded into the container and sent to recycling specialist Kinsbursky Bros. in Anaheim, Calif., Smith said. The packs weigh 100 to 150 pounds, so they can be shipped by UPS.
Kinsbursky breaks down the battery pack, removing the most valuable components — the nickel and a few rare-earth elements. The battery modules are shorted out to remove the electric current, the electrolyte is decanted and the nickel is sent to a smelter outside the tough regulatory climate of California. The resulting smelt typically is turned into stainless steel used to make refrigerator doors. The shells around the pack are recyclable. The plastic housing is shredded and reused.
Kinsbursky can also recycle lithium ion batteries, which are replacing nickel-metal hydride batteries in many EVs and hybrids.
Typically when the hybrid battery nears the end of its life, vehicle owners are ready to get a new car anyway. A new battery pack retails for $2,589, slightly less than the cost of an engine rebuild. And while Toyota is trying to drive down the cost of a new pack, the replacement cost tends to push the decision for a trade-in. As a result, the dealer can install a new battery pack for a used car he can resell.
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