The Quest To Find A Second Life For Electric Vehicle Batteries

Rechargeable lithium chemistry battery cells found their mass market foothold in the field of personal electronics. The technology has since matured enough to be scaled up (in both physical size and production volume) to electric cars, making long range EVs far more economical than what was possible using earlier batteries. Would the new economics also make battery reuse a profitable business? Eric Lundgren is one of those willing to make a run at it, and [Gizmodo] took a look at his latest venture.

This man is a serial entrepreneur, though his previous business idea was not successful as it involved “reusing” trademarks that were not his to use. Fortunately this new business BigBattery appears to be on far more solid legal footing, disassembling battery packs from retired electric vehicles and repacking cells for other purposes. Typically EV batteries are deemed “worn out” when their capacity drops below a certain percentage (70% is a common bar) but that reduced capacity could still be useful outside of an EV. And when battery packs are retired due to problems elsewhere in the car, or just suffering from a few bad cells, it’s possible to extract units in far better shape.

We’ve been interested in how to make the best use of rechargeable lithium batteries. Ranging from tech notes helping battery reuse, to a comparison of different types, to looking at how their end-of-life recycling will be different from lead-acid batteries. Not to mention countless project wins and fails in between. A recurring theme is the volatility of mistreated or misbehaving batteries. Seeing a number of EV battery packs stacked on pallets and shelves, presumably filled with cells of undetermined quality, fills us with unease. Like the rest of California, Chatsworth is under earthquake risk, and the town was uncomfortably close to some wildfires in 2019. Eric is quick to give assurance that employees are given regular safety training and the facility conforms to all applicable workplace safety rules. But did those rules consider warehouses packed full of high capacity lithium battery cells of unknown quality? We expect that, like the business itself, standards for safety will evolve.

Concerns on safety aside, a successful business here would mean electric vehicles have indeed given battery reuse a profitable economy of scale that tiny little cell phone and laptop batteries could not reach. We are optimistic that Eric and other like-minded people pursuing similar goals can evolve this concept into a bright spot in our otherwise woeful state of e-waste handling.

49 thoughts on “The Quest To Find A Second Life For Electric Vehicle Batteries

  1. They are working feverishly to dismantle the US EPA and environmental protections, and there appears to be no willingness to police inappropriate conduct at the federal level, so I think you need not worry about the prospects for the business.

  2. Awesome… especially if he can keep a competitive price point. Looks like he’s got the score of leaf batteries. His U.S. court file situation is a great model to study the corruption of the U.S. into some sort of Federal Roman kleptocracy/idiocracy/pandering ring always in the commission of a crime.

    1. I’d be happy to grab 3 cells.
      I see all these projects trying to cram ultra high capacity and ultra high current into themselves.
      My project is so much simpler, I want to charge up the cells when the ACC is on in a vehicle and then run a 2ma load until the cells are ‘flat’
      Hell it’s probably something I could do with a single cell and a buck/boost arrangement.

  3. I’m somewhat not knowledgeable on this topic, but can’t old batteries theoretically be dismantled to extract their lithium and other materials, which can then be refined/recycled to make fresh new batteries? AFAIK, batteries get old because their chemistry changes over time, but in the end the lithium is still there and hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s just a matter of extracting it back.

    1. lead acid has a pretty good infrastructure around it to reclaim the lead. not that lead is super valuable but it’s cheaper to reuse it than dispose of it as toxic waste.
      lithium cells are harder to recycle, the industry around recycling them is less developed, and there is less pressure on the industry to deal with the problem. (because the problem isn’t critical yet, we seem to have to wait for disasters before we take action)

      1. If US wants its supply security, it’ll need to do its own lithium recycling. Currently China s controlling ‘rare earth’ minerals some of which are essential for making batteries, neo-magnets which is essential for EV. It s not just the mining side, but the processing that is a big problem – generating lots of environmental waste. i.e. NIMBY. Recycling

        China controls the minerals and patents for advanced processing as they had their PHD working om that for 10+ years. They want to move up the value chain selling assemblies or finished goods.

          1. he’s talking about the lanthanoids you need for neodimium magnets…also most of the cobalt (crucial for these lithium cells) currently comes from Africa, into which China has been heavily investing for the last 2 decades. This is the crucial part. Cobalt is rare and it makes little sense to not reclaim it from the batteries.
            Last but not least, who’s to say that Bolivia can’t decide it wants a little more cash for it’s lithium?

          2. And this is better because?

            Also, lithium comes in lithium hydroxide and lithium carbonate. The carbonate is less valuable because it has to be processed further to turn it into lithium hydroxide, in order to process it to batteries. Bolivia has almost no infrastructure to extract or process their lithium, and they’re mainly producing lithium carbonate, and the country is full of socialists who might decide to nationalize the industry the moment it starts to produce any profit.

  4. Actually China is a better place simply due to the factors Hirudinea has stated. CA is just way too expensive for salvage work of this sort. Even less polluting types of salvage work have been driven out of the state.

  5. I remember reading an article in a rustic lifestyle magazine years ago about a fellow who lived off-grid. He had a small well-ventilated shed away from the house which had shelves filled with a few dozen old car batteries, all wired up. He used to go and get a stack of “dead” batteries from a battery shop which, although not good enough to crank a starter motor, would provide ample power for his setup when enough of them were used. When they were were nearly dead he would simply take them back and exchange them for another batch.

  6. Honda Fit EVs use Lithium Titanate batteries which have a lower intrinsic cell voltage (2.4v-ish) than most Lithium Ion batteries but have an astronomical number of charge/discharge cycles ( >= 10k cycles before capacity falls to 80%) if charge and discharge are kept below 4C, but you can both charge and discharge them at 8C if you can live with 5k cycle life).

    Look up Toshiba SCiB batteries. They are quite robust (but as always, you pay in weight and volume). I got some from eBay pulled from a crashed Homda Fit EV those scrap yard finds are the best bang for the buck if you’re building a power wall or in my case an electric go-kart…

      1. The trick there is that they defined “full capacity” well below the actual capacity of the cells, avoiding the “near full capacity” region that is very bad for lithium cells.

    1. I have a Citizen Ecodrive watch that has a lithium titanate battery in it. It’s been running for 12 years with zero issues. The face of the watch is a solar cell that charges the battery. As I understand it, the capacity of the battery is quite small, so it has effectively gone through a fair number of charge cycles over its life.

    1. Funny, I’ve been living in the US for nearly 5 decades, and I have yet to meet a fellow citizen that DOESN’T believe that our government is loaded with corrupt elements (of those I’ve discussed the issue with, of course). This isn’t a slight on any one element of the US government, but rather something that is present at all levels.

      I can’t comment on UK politics, but politicians are politicians anywhere in the world.

  7. This is only possible at any scale when the original cell manufacturer can guarantee the safety of the cell, in it’s new use and operating conditions and with far extended life, both in years and cycles.
    Tesla did some research into this and concluded that using old car cells for stationary storage isn’t a viable option.
    The best solution is to to schread the old batteries and extract solvents and metals, and use those in the production of new batteries. Without solvents and metals, the remaining wast is mostly carbon and bits of plastic. Not suitable for dumping into the oceans but otherwise not to hard to depose of.
    Recycling is also helped by the simple fact that EV batteries are simply too large to fit in the waste bin of most households.

    1. Tesla’s study doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not viable. For one, Tesla really doesn’t like the used concept… it’s the only car company that doesn’t have a certified refurbished program and they do everything they can to not sell parts for used cars, even when the profit margins are huge. Actually feels a lot like dealing with an old iPhone, except a car shouldn’t be obsolete when only a few years old. Tesla also has a ‘sleak ethos’. If cutting the price in half means the power wall is twice as big, that alone could be enough reason for them not to do it. Again, feels like a cell phone in a way… better to have fragile glass than an extra mm of thickness.

      But for reasonable people, something 4x the size of a power wall that holds twice the change and costs 1/4 as much could be a winner. They could even design it so that it works off grid, very handy places with bad or no infrastructure such as California.

  8. As soon as I saw the tagline for this article, I thought of another one, and a third in support of the second. Here you go:

    …but there’s an important thing that /both of them leave out/ — costs can be further cut (down to very nearly NOTHING) by working with local community colleges. Seriously!

    I live in a small town in rural Chatham County, North Carolina. (“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” is an applicable song from a very good era ;) ) The local community college system here is Central Carolina Community College. (Usually abbreviated CCCC, but often referred to in conversation as C^4 (“Cee to the fourth”), a tongue-in-cheek mathematical reference to the /proper/ abbreviation, of course.)

    CCCC has four campuses — Pittsboro, two in Siler City (IIRC — they might have unified them, I’m not sure), and Sanford. Pittsboro is basically an open-air antiques mall posing as a town. It’s also the county seat. Siler City has the nearest Wal*Mart and was where Aunt Bee retired when she left Mayberry (supposedly Mayberry was modeled on Siler City but I can’t quite see it). Siler City’s town motto is “Delightfully Unexpected”… it really ought to be “Come on over, we’re bored!” since there’s pretty much literally nothing to do in the place. Sanford is a much larger place, a small city. I don’t have reason to go there too often but it’s a lot more happening than the rest of the area, I can tell you that! (It’s also outside of Chatham County, it’s over in Lee County.)

    The Sanford CCCC campus is the main one, but the one I’m most familiar with is the Pittsboro campus. I went there for a computer course, an A+ Certification class that was (supposedly) college level, during my time as a high-school senior in 2004. (I don’t remember the name of the program that allowed that, but it wasn’t an AP thing… IIRC it was the name of a person, someone who got an NC state law named after them, that allowed such a thing to happen.) That campus has changed quite dramatically since… meh, whatever.

    But here’s the thing — one bit that /hasn’t/ changed about the Pittsboro campus, is that that’s where the automotive-oriented courses in CCCC’s offerings take place. If you want to learn how to repair cars in Chatham County, and you don’t have a relative in the biz (or you just want to be sure that your education on the subject is formal enough to be backed up by a paper trail), your destination is the CCCC Pittsboro Campus. They even have a course or two on EV conversions.

    That last bit is the key part. If Chatham County Schools wanted to throw some old Nissan Leaf and Prius batteries (not too many Teslas out here) at their buses, the absolute dirt-cheapest way to accomplish the conversions proper, would be to contract with CCCC to have their professors in that department work with students to do the conversions as a repeating course. I’m sure CCCC wouldn’t charge anywhere *near* what a proper EV conversion facility would cost out, to do the same work — and the students doing the conversions would learn quite a bit, *and* upon graduation could possibly have a career opportunity, if they wanted it, working for Chatham County Schools in the fleet maintenance pool.

    That’s just one regional example, though — community colleges are *all over* the USA, and I can’t imagine that most /don’t/ offer a course collection for prospective auto mechanics, with at least one or two courses on EV stuff. This could be done literally anywhere in the country…!

    1. But then they are left with cobbled together buses potentially using some non standard parts, that require the knowledge of how and why things were done to maintain. Plus leaving them with non standard buses that will be impossible to sell at the end of their service life. You won’t be convincing any school board to go with that plan!

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