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Sunday, August 25, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Don C. Brunell: The inconvenient truth about batteries

Don C. Brunell

Each year Americans throw away more than 3 billion batteries constituting 180,000 tons of hazardous material, and the situation is likely to get much worse as the world shifts to electric vehicles.

Everyday-green.com reports more than 86,000 tons of single-use alkaline batteries (AAA, AA, C and D) are thrown away. They power electronic toys and games, portable audio equipment and flashlights and make up 20 percent of the household hazardous materials in our garbage dumps.

Unlike composted waste, batteries are hazardous and contaminate our environment, particularly our drinking water. Even though the harmful materials are tightly encased, the casing is often crushed during landfilling. The spent batteries contain toxic acids and metals such as mercury, nickel, cadmium, cobalt and lead.

While it is convenient to just chuck used batteries into the trash, the more expensive rechargeable types can be used up to a thousand times more than the single-use types, but recharging is inconvenient, time-consuming and robs counter space.

Today, America is a throw-away country bent on simple convenient solutions. Even where there are recycling programs, too many recyclables end up in the trash. Things are about to change dramatically as more electric vehicles populate our roads and our government and manufacturers deal the growing backlog of old car batteries.

The Guardian reported the number of electric cars worldwide surpassed 2 million in 2017. The International Energy Agency estimates there will be 140 million electrics globally by 2030, leaving behind 11 million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling. That is a herculean task considering last year only 5 percent of the European Union’s electric car batteries were recycled.

The good news is automakers are actively looking for ways to extend the life of lithium batteries. Reprocessing spent batteries is getting more attention as manufacturers increase demand for metals, particularly cobalt, which are already in short supply.

One approach is converting car batteries for household use. The Guardian reports Aceleron, a high-tech British startup, plans to take electric car batteries which still have 70 percent of their capacity and repackage them for growing home energy storage.

American Manganese Inc., a Surrey, British Columbia, company, has patented a process which recovers lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and aluminum from cathodes used in lithium-ion batteries. The company, which has a pilot plant in operation near Vancouver, British Columbia, is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy to bring the process into commercial production.

American Manganese uses a leaching and precipitation method to recover the metals. Currently, the cathodes are smelted and only a portion of the cobalt is salvaged, but virtually no lithium.

The new technology is of particular interest to our nation, which imports three-fourths of its cobalt, half of its lithium and all of its manganese.

To be competitive, American lithium battery makers need to have reliable supplies of critical metals and be cost competitive worldwide.

China, which plans to put six million electric cars on the roads by 2025, has recently slowed its electric production; however, China still has plenty of willing investors. Last year VW, Daimler, Toyota, Ford, the Renault-Nissan alliance and GM all announced joint-ventures to produce electric vehicles in China.

One reason is China has been stockpiling critical metals and its buying spree has been partly responsible for the 2017 surge in the price of cobalt, which was 2.5 times greater than 2016.

Our opportunity is finding new environmentally and economically feasible ways to reprocess all spent batteries and prevent them from being trucked off to landfills. Enterprising Americans will find ways to make recycling more convenient in our homes and at work if it is possible to make it profitable.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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