How hybrid battery recycling can help sales
LOS ANGELES -- 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.
Multiline dealer Mike Sullivan of Santa Monica, Calif., said his Toyota Santa Monica store has repeatedly been the world's No. 1 store in Prius and total hybrid sales, with his Toyota of Hollywood close behind. In 2010, Toyota Santa Monica sold 1,975 Priuses and 2,100 total hybrids. He said that when the program started a year ago, his dealerships may have had one or two hybrids a month coming in with batteries at the end of their useful lives.
But now, because more hybrids are in use, it's 10 to 20 over the course of a month. Because batteries fade slowly toward the end and do not abruptly die, owners tend to come into the dealership for advice, Sullivan said.
"We tell them, 'Here's what's going to happen in the next year or two.' People don't get mad. They understand it's a seven- or eight-year life cycle," he said.
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.
"The Prius is a good entry-premium car, and when this happens, we can get people to trade up to the next-level hybrid," Sullivan said. "It's a good story for us."
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