Recycling your Battery
Cadex Electronics Inc.
Over 75 million Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) batteries were sold
in the US during the year 2000. Market predictions indicate
that the demand of NiCd batteries will rise six percent per
year until 2003. The demand for other chemistries such as
Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) and Lithium Ion (Li‑ion)
is increasing at a more rapid pace. Where will the mountains
of batteries go when spent? The answer is recycling.
The lead acid battery has led the way in recycling. The automotive
industry should be given credit in organizing ways to dispose
of old car batteries. In the USA, 98 percent of all lead acid
batteries are recycled. Compared to aluminum cans (65 percent),
newspaper (59 percent) and glass bottles (37 percent),
lead acid batteries are reclaimed very efficiently, due in
part to legislation.
Only one in six households in North America recycle small
rechargeable batteries. Homeowners have the lowest return
ratios, but this should improve once more recycling repositories
become available and better environmental awareness is emphasized.
The NiCd battery is one of the more hazardous batteries in
terms of disposal. If used in landfills, the cadmium will
eventually dissolve itself and the toxic substance will seep
into the water supply, causing serious health problems. Our
oceans are already beginning to show traces of cadmium (along
with aspirin, penicillin and antidepressants) but the source
of the contamination is unknown. Under no circumstances can
batteries be incinerated as this can cause them to explode.
Although NiMH batteries are considered environmentally friendly,
this chemistry is also being recycled. The main derivative
is nickel, which is considered semi-toxic. NiMH also contains
an electrolyte that, in large amounts, is hazardous to the
If no disposal service is available in an area, individual
NiMH batteries can be discarded with other household wastes.
If ten or more batteries are accumulated, the user should
consider disposing the batteries in a secure waste landfill.
Lithium (metal) batteries contain no toxic metals, however,
there is the possibility of fire if metallic lithium is exposed
to moisture while the cells are corroding. Most lithium batteries
are non-rechargeable and are used by defense organizations.
Cameras and other commercial products also use primary lithium
batteries. For proper disposal, these batteries must be fully
discharged in order to consume all metallic lithium content.
Li‑ion batteries (rechargeable), on the other hand,
do not contain metallic lithium and the disposal problem does
not exist. Most lithium systems contain toxic and flammable
In 1994, the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC)
was founded to promote the recycling of rechargeable batteries
in North America. RBRC is a non-profit organization that collects
batteries from consumers and businesses and sends them to
Inmetco and Toxco for recycling. Inmetco specializes in recycling
NiCd, but also accepts NiMH and lead-based batteries. Toxco,
focuses on lithium metal and Li‑ion system. Currently
only intended to recycle NiCd batteries, RBRC will expand
the program to include also NiMH, Li‑ion and SLA batteries.
Programs to recycle spent batteries have been in place in
Europe and Asia for many years. Sony and Sumitomo Metal in
Japan have developed a technology to recycle cobalt and other
precious metals from Li‑ion batteries. The rest of Asia
is progressing at a slower rate. Some movements in recycling
spent batteries are starting in Taiwan and China, but no significant
Battery recycling plants require batteries to be sorted according
to chemistries. Some sorting is done prior to the battery
arriving at the recycling plants. NiCd, NiMH, Li‑ion
and lead acid are often placed in designated boxes at the
collection point. Sorting batteries must be done manually,
an operation that adds to the cost of recycling.
If a steady stream of sorted batteries were available at
no charge, recycling would be feasible with little cost to
the user. The logistics of collection, transportation and
labor to sort the batteries make recycling expensive.
The recycling process starts by removing the combustible
material, such as plastics and insulation using a gas fired
thermal oxidizer. Gases from the thermal oxidizer are sent
to the plant’s scrubber where they are neutralized to remove
pollutants. The process leaves the clean, naked cells, which
contain valuable metal content.
The cells are then chopped into small pieces, which are heated
until the metal liquefies. Non-metallic substances are burned
off; leaving a black slag on top that is removed with a slag
arm. The different alloys settle according to their weights
and are skimmed off like cream from raw milk.
Cadmium is relatively light and vaporizes easily at high
temperatures. In a process that appears like a pan boiling
over, a fan blows the cadmium vapor into a large tube, which
is cooled with water mist. This causes the vapors to condense.
A 99.95 percent purity level of cadmium can be achieved
using this method.
Some recyclers do not separate the metals on site but pour
the liquid metals directly into what the industry refers to
as ‘pigs’ (65 pounds) or ‘hogs’ (2000 pounds). The pigs and
hogs are then shipped to metal recovery plants. Here, the
material is used to produce nickel, chromium and iron re-melt
alloy for the manufacturing of stainless steel and other high
Current battery recycling methods requires a high amount
of energy. It takes six to ten times the amount of energy
to reclaim metals from recycled batteries than it would through
other means. A new process is being explored, which may be
more energy and cost effective. One method is dissolving the
batteries with a reagent solution. The spent reagent is recycled
without forming any atmospheric, liquid or solid wastes.
Who pays for the recycling of batteries in bulk? Participating
countries impose their own rules in making recycling feasible.
In North America, some recycling plants bill on weight. The
rates vary according to chemistry. Systems that yield high
metal retrieval rates are priced lower than those that produce
less valuable metals.
The highest recycling fees apply to NiCd and Li‑ion
batteries because the demand for cadmium is low and Li‑ion
batteries contain little retrievable metal. The recycling
cost of alkaline is 33 percent lower than that of NiCd
and Li‑ion because the alkaline cell contains iron.
The NiMH battery yields the best return. Recycling NiMH produces
enough nickel to pay for the process.
Not all countries base the cost of recycling on the battery
chemistry; some put it on tonnage alone. The average cost
of recycling batteries is $1,000 to $2,000US per ton.
Europe hopes to achieve a cost per ton of $300US. Ideally,
this would include transportation, however, moving the goods
is expected to double the overall cost. For this reason, Europe
is setting up several smaller processing locations in strategic
Significant subsidies are sill required from manufacturers,
agencies and governments to support the battery recycling
programs. These subsidies are in the form of a tax added to
each manufactured cell. RBRC is financed by such a scheme.
Proper disposal of batteries is a growing concern, especially
with NiCd. In spite of the move to environmentally friendlier
chemistries such as NiMH and Li-ion, the NiCd battery continues
to fill an important market niche. Many applications do not
run satisfactorily with newer battery systems. Portable equipment
that must rely on the durable and forgiving power source of
the classic NiCd are power tools, biomedical devices and two-way
Rechargeable batteries produce far less waste than the non-rechargeable
variety because they can be reused hundreds of time. In terms
of preserving the environment, switching to rechargeables
makes common sense. The most durable rechargeable battery
is the NiCd, a chemistry that is also the least friendly if
This article contains excerpts from the second edition book
entitled Batteries in a Portable World — A Handbook on Rechargeable
Batteries for Non-Engineers. In the book, Mr. Buchmann evaluates
the battery in everyday use and explains their strengths and
weaknesses in laymen’s terms. The 300-page book is available
from Cadex Electronics Inc. through firstname.lastname@example.org,
tel. 604-231-7777 or most bookstores. For additional information
on battery technology visit www.buchmann.ca.
About the Author
Isidor Buchmann is the founder and CEO of Cadex Electronics
Inc., in Richmond (Vancouver) British Columbia, Canada. Mr.
Buchmann has a background in radio communications and has
studied the behavior of rechargeable batteries in practical,
everyday applications for two decades. The author of many
articles and books on battery maintenance technology, Mr.
Buchmann is a well-known speaker who has delivered technical
papers and presentations at seminars and conferences around
About the Company
Cadex Electronics Inc. is a world leader in the design and
manufacture of advanced battery analyzers and chargers. Their
award-winning products are used to prolong battery life in
wireless communications, emergency services, mobile computing,
avionics, biomedical, broadcasting and defense. Cadex products
are sold in over 100 countries.