Honda takes battery recycling to scale

Sensemaking / Honda takes battery recycling to scale

The automaker is extracting rare earth metals from used car batteries at a new facility in Japan.

By virginiamarsh / 18 Sep 2012

The automaker is extracting rare earth metals from used car batteries at a new facility in Japan.

Honda is claiming one of metal recycling’s cherished prizes. With a local partner, it has begun extracting so-called rare earth metals from used car batteries at a big new facility in rural Japan.

The automaker says the plant is the first in the world to establish an extraction technology successful enough to support a large-scale rare earths retrieval operation. It believes it can recover some 80% of these chemical elements from the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in hybrid cars – and with a purity equal to those that are newly mined. As such, it is on track to re-use the rare earths in new batteries, and hopefully in other motor components too.

Details are sketchy. Honda has released minimal information about the technology, which is to be patented by its partner, Japan Metals & Chemicals (JMC). Honda says it has run trials on some 2,000 engines at the new facility, which was developed with a significant subsidy from the Japanese Government and sits alongside a smelter owned by JMC in Oguni, a small settlement north of Tokyo.

The name ‘rare earths’, used to describe a grouping of 17 chemical elements including scandium, cerium and lanthanum, is something of a misnomer. Such metals are not so much ‘rare’ as in scarce supply. Jean-Paul Tognet, a global authority on rare earths, says there are some 200 development projects to mine these substances underway around the world, but that it could take several years to bring even the most promising on stream.

For now, China remains far and away the largest single supplier. Its recent cuts to exports of rare earths have caused a price spike and increased pressure to recycle them.

Honda maintains that the supply crunch is not the key driver behind the new plant. Other organisations are well advanced in developing competing rare earth extraction technologies – notably Tognet’s long-time employer Rhodia, the chemicals group.

Honda’s initiative is welcome, Tognet says, because “it is important for all the big car companies to show they are strong actors in recycling systems for batteries of electric cars”. – Virginia Marsh

Photo: istockphoto/thinkstock

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