By Katie Pyzyk
Hybrid and electric vehicle batteries can pack a powerful—and dangerous—punch. Train workers about hazards and safe handling practices now, before the trickle of end-of-life EVs becomes a flood.
In 1900, when automobiles were still a luxury, one-third of the cars on the road were electric, according to a timeline on the U.S. Department of Energy website. Then the Ford Model T came along. Mass production, as well as advances in internal combustion engines, petroleum production, and other technologies, led
gasoline-powered vehicles to dominate the automobile market for nearly the entire 20th century.
When Toyota launched the Prius hybrid in the 1990s, it moved electric vehicles from obscurity to mainstream acceptance, with sales of all Prius models in the United States growing from just 5,500 in 2000 to more than 107,000 in 2005. Tesla introduced its first electric vehicle in 2008, and the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt both debuted in 2010.
Some analysts suggest EV sales might be approaching the “hockey stick growth” point, in which incremental increases suddenly take a sharp turn upward. The Edison Electric Institute estimates that 890,000 electric vehicles were on U.S. roads last year, and total EV sales were up 40% in 2018 compared with 2017. Nearly every major automaker is incorporating at least one electric model into its product line, and some have committed to markedly reducing the number of internal-combustion-engine vehicles they produce over the next 20 years. Volvo will only introduce hybrid or electric vehicles from this year onward, for example. J.P. Morgan estimates that by 2025, 38% of vehicles sold in North America will be hybrid or electric vehicles, totaling 4.7 million vehicles a year.
Hybrid and electric vehicles have been trickling into dismantling and recycling yards in small numbers since the 1990s, albeit unevenly across the country. With many manufacturers’ warranties good for eight years, industry watchers say that trickle could turn into a flood as soon as next year. “We’re just now seeing a larger number of those vehicles coming into the automotive recyclers’ facilities … That number is never going to go back down,” says Sandy Blalock, executive director of the Automotive Recyclers Association (Manassas, Va.).
As these numbers grow, it’s essential for recyclers to understand how electric vehicles’ potentially deadly hazards differ from those in internal-combustion-engine vehicles and how to handle the vehicles and their batteries safely. “Frankly, we think it’s one of the biggest problems that we’re looking at in the future for proper handling of motor vehicles,” says Steve Levetan, executive vice president at Pull-A-Part (Atlanta) and chair of ISRI’s Auto Recycling Committee.
Know the danger zones
Hybrid and electric vehicles use a variety of motor and battery designs, but in general, they rely on either nickel-metal hydride or lithium-ion batteries for power. NiMH batteries are more prevalent in hybrids and older vehicle models, while li-ion batteries are common in fully electric and newer hybrid models. The two chemistries require different handling, says Micheal Smyth, director of the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium, a program of West Virginia University’s Energy Institute, located in Morgantown, W.Va.
The batteries are not a single, compact unit, like the 12-volt lead-acid batteries in gasoline-powered vehicles. Instead, the advanced battery packs consist of cells—often thousands of them—that make up bricks, with multiple bricks comprising the entire battery pack. “It’s a system, not a standalone component,” says Michael Burz, president of EnZinc (San Anselmo, Calif.), which is developing new battery chemistries. “Don’t try to disassemble them down to the cell or brick level,” he warns, “because you could set something off.” The battery packs come in a variety of configurations and locations throughout the vehicle, which means finding them can also be a challenge.
Train employees to identify and label an end-of-life vehicle that contains an advanced battery pack immediately when it enters the facility. Some vehicles bear external or dashboard markings indicating an electrified fuel system, but those markings are not universal. Brightly colored cables in the engine compartment are the most surefire method of identifying hybrids and electric vehicles: Mild hybrids of 36 to 46 volts have blue cables; vehicles that carry an excess of 60 volts have orange cables. Once you identify an EV, label it with a tag or grease marker note on the windshield, Smyth says. That should make it clear to anyone who encounters the vehicle that it contains an electrified fuel system.
The three main risks of EV batteries are electric shock, chemical leakage, and fires, with the latter often related to improper battery storage or shipment. The immediate and severe risk of electric shock makes it the focal point of much battery removal training. A Prius battery is about 200 volts of direct current, some Tesla model batteries are 400 volts DC, and a new electric Porsche model contains an 800-volt DC battery pack. Manufacturers are working on batteries in excess of 1,100 volts DC, and regenerative braking and other conversion techniques increase the voltage a battery produces. For example, the Tesla’s 400-volt DC battery converts to 800 volts alternating current. To put this amount of energy into context, “anything between 70 and 90 volts DC is fatal to humans,” and these vehicles contain charges that are orders of magnitude higher than that level, says Andy Latham, managing director at Salvage Wire (Wymondham, England), who has spoken about EV battery safety at several ISRI events.
Battery leakage is a problem because the chemicals in the battery, called electrolytes, are hazardous. NiMH batteries contain potassium hydroxide, which is incredibly harmful to human health. “If you get it in your eyes, it will blind you. If it gets into your bloodstream, it will poison you,” Latham says. Isolate any hybrids or EVs that clearly have been involved in an accident and check them for battery leakage. Isolation also reduces the risk of damage if the battery catches fire. “You typically want a radius of 25 feet to be clear” around these vehicles or their batteries, Burz says.
The coverings that protect advanced battery packs sustain damage relatively easily. Vehicles with batteries in the trunk are especially susceptible to battery damage. While vehicle accidents obviously can cause damage, so can excessive pressure during handling, storage, and shipment. That pressure can puncture battery pack casings and spark a fire.
If an end-of-life hybrid or electric vehicle with its battery pack were to enter a shredder, baler, or car crusher, it could be disastrous, Burz warns. “You don’t want to put that much energy in a crusher or shredder. … It could create a big explosion and knock out your machinery,” in addition to creating a severe danger for employees.
Training for advanced battery handling
Scrap and dismantling yards that handle end-of-life vehicles should train all employees to recognize and segregate vehicles that contain advanced battery packs, but working on such vehicles requires much more extensive training. It’s a serious concern at auto dismantling facilities, even more so at self-service facilities where untrained customers could come into contact with and receive injuries from a live electric battery. “We have a very robust and extensive training program for our employees to identify these vehicles and then to properly and safely handle any of the batteries,” Pull-A-Part’s Levetan says.
Several organizations and businesses provide training on electrified fuel systems, with some programs just one day long. The National Fire Protection Association offers training which it markets to tow truck drivers and salvage yards, for example, on staying safe and de-energizing electric vehicles. Electric vehicle battery training now constitutes a notable portion of the work of the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium, which has developed automotive technician training for all fuels since its inception in 1992. The group first developed courses for the U.S. Department of Energy, then for first responders such as firefighters and police officers. It’s receiving more training requests from second responders such as tow truck, salvage, and auto recycling businesses, Smyth says. NAFTC offers in-person training either at its West Virginia headquarters or at dismantlers’ and recyclers’ facilities. Through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities Coalition Network, NAFTC also has held training events that were open to any interested recyclers in the area where the training was held. This fall, the group plans to launch an online, self-guided alternative fuels training course for recyclers.
Vehicle manufacturers are becoming more involved with advanced battery pack safety training, but thus far they are providing it only to auto dealership technicians, not to the recycling sector, says Bryce Cornet, who works in marketing and business development at Spiers New Technologies (Oklahoma City, Okla.), a business that repairs, remanufactures, refurbishes, and repurposes advanced battery packs. Spiers works with original equipment manufacturers to develop documents to guide technicians in servicing hybrid and EV batteries, and OEMs usually will provide this information to auto dismantlers at their request, he says.
Likewise, ARA is ramping up work on the hybrid and EV educational materials it provides online. It’s also beefing up its resources related to the dozens of smaller batteries that vehicles now have to power electronic equipment and systems such as alarms, key fobs, navigation systems, safety systems, and hands-free communications. It’s developing a database in which recyclers can enter a vehicle make, model, and year to receive a guide showing all the batteries in a vehicle and how to properly remove them, Blalock says.
Advanced battery handling basics
Hybrid and EV batteries in end-of-life vehicles often still carry a charge. Before you attempt to remove an advanced electric battery pack, “query the battery management system to make sure there isn’t any voltage left in there. It could still have high energy left in it,” Burz says. A 1,000-volt multimeter is an appropriate tool to measure the remaining charge.
Even when a battery is fully discharged, it can still leak electrolytes. Train employees to test for and neutralize hazardous chemical leaks—a task that requires alkaline gloves and a face mask as personal protective equipment. NiMH battery electrolytes are colorless and odorless, so the safe and accurate way to test fluid leaks is to use litmus paper, Latham says. If the red litmus paper turns blue, the fluid is hazardous. Use boric acid to neutralize it, then repeat the test-and-neutralize process until the fluid no longer turns the litmus paper blue.
Work on hybrids and EVs in a dry, well-lit, well-ventilated area. After de-energizing the vehicle, ensure that all keys have been removed and any electronic key fobs are at least 15 feet away so they cannot communicate with the vehicle. To avoid receiving an electric shock, employees who handle and remove advanced battery packs must wear PPE that includes rubber lineman’s gloves and boots. Recertify the gloves at regular intervals, and test them before each use for any pinhole-sized tears that could convey electricity. Keep an insulated rescue hook near the work area to pull a person receiving an electric shock away from the battery. The DC power flow causes human muscles to contract, which means that a person receiving a shock cannot let go of the unit.
Electrified batteries create an electromagnetic field that can interfere with other electronic devices, including implanted medical devices such as pacemakers and diabetic pumps. Employees with such devices should not work on hybrids and EVs. “They are perfectly safe to drive or ride in for people that have heart pacemakers or diabetic pumps,” Latham points out. “It’s only if you start to work on them that electromagnetic fields can be encountered.”
The sheer weight of advanced battery packs presents another hazard. A single pack weighs hundreds or thousands of pounds, depending on the model, and one person cannot remove it without damage to themselves or the battery. “You’re going to need a very good lift to be able to handle something that’s about 1,800 pounds,” EnZinc’s Burz says.
Proper battery storage and shipment are essential to prevent damage, leakage, and thermal events. “The main [concern] is fuel density. You don’t want to pile batteries in a corner somewhere because one short circuit can create a fire that spreads to other batteries,” says Paul Johnson, executive director of environmental affairs at Kinsbursky Brothers Inc. (Anaheim, Calif.). This is especially true with li-ion batteries because they hold more energy than NiMH versions. Keep the two battery chemistries separate—don’t put li-ion and NiMH batteries in the same container or pallet. Insulate the EV battery terminals with specialized devices made for that purpose, or cover them with tape so they do not come into contact with other exposed terminals that could cause them to heat up or spark.
The U.S. Department of Transportation considers advanced battery packs hazardous material, therefore only properly trained employees can package and offer them for shipping. They require a strong outer package, such as a plastic shipping crate designed specifically for battery transport. “They have to be protected against short circuit and movement during transportation,” Johnson says. Third-party environmental service providers can perform these tasks for facilities without adequately trained in-house employees.
Before you invest in training and equipment to remove advanced battery packs, know this: “Right now, there are a limited number of downstream options for these batteries,” says David Wagger, ISRI’s chief scientist and director of environmental management.
Some OEMs have battery takeback programs—but just for vehicle dealerships, which have become the middlemen for advanced battery handling. The OEMs realize that approach might not be sufficient in the long term, Spiers’ Cornet says. “There’s more talk about how to support the customer on the aftermarket,” he says.
Spiers assists clients with life cycle management solutions for advanced batteries. The units’ next life depends on the remaining charge and condition. Some can be repaired and resold as batteries or used as grid energy storage. KBI also manages all types of batteries and is one of the most widely used North American hybrid and EV battery recyclers. “We ship them to our related downstream facilities, including Retriev Technologies,” which processes them and extracts valuable materials, Johnson says.
Transporting recovered batteries is costly due to their hefty weight and categorization as a hazard. Shipping costs are “the biggest problem we have right now,” ARA’s Blalock says. Because the batteries weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds, “shipping that is going to be in the neighborhood of $1,500. Until that cost comes down or we find a different avenue to do it, you’re not going to find a lot of recyclers get in the business of recovering those,” she says.
Industry participants say that options for recycling EVs and their battery packs are likely to evolve and improve. Businesses, researchers, and the federal government all are working on ways to increase recycling efficiency, which in turn could make the practice more prevalent, cost effective, and viable. Currently, the value of the materials the batteries contain is often lower than costs of shipping and recycling, “so it’s not economically profitable to recycle the batteries without charging to take the batteries,” says Jeff Spangenberger, director of the ReCell Center. The Energy Department launched the ReCell Center earlier this year in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory “to make lithium-ion battery recycling more economically attractive so we don’t run into this problem,” Spangenberger says. The consortium relies heavily on industry input to ensure its research and development is put to good use.
ISRI’s Auto Recycling Committee also is looking at the downstream dilemma. Like others, the committee would like greater buy-in and participation from OEMs. “We’ll be discussing further … what the options are for dealing with these batteries,” Levetan says. “We don’t have the answer yet, but we think it’s important we be at the table with the OEMs to find viable solutions.”
In the meantime, don’t ignore the looming issue of hybrid and electric end-of-life vehicles coming into your facility. Train employees now to ensure they know how to spot, label, and segregate them so they don’t end up in a shredder and to reduce the chance of an employee or customer coming into contact with a charged battery.
“This continual professional development is becoming an essential part of our business,” Latham says. “If we’re not professional about the new technology that’s coming through … we’re going to get left behind.”
Katie Pyzyk is a contributing writer for Scrap.