GM plans to reuse the Chevy Volt's lithium-ion battery for grid storage and has signed a contract with a grid storage provider to recycle the batteries.

The storage will help improve the reliability of alternative energy power technologies like wind and solar.  (Source: TutorVista)
Plan could give alternative energy a boost

Lithium is a great material for batteries, thanks to its high energy density and long life of charging or discharging.  That performance has earned lithium-ion batteries the nod as the electricity storing device in electrified vehicles like hybrids and battery electric vehicles (e.g. the 2011 Chevy Volt from General Motors).

The dirty secret of the lithium-ion batteries, though, is that they are extremely hard to recycle.  Only a handful of companies worldwide recycle li-ion batteries -- among them is Anaheim, Calif.-based TOXCO Inc.  Lithium is extremely reactive and prone to explosions or combustion, so in order to safely recycle them safely, Toxco must first remove all remaining charge and then cryogenically freeze the batteries.  And even then, the lithium recovered can't be reused effectively recovered for reuse in batteries, but is rather reacted to produce lithium carbonate -- a key component of psychiatric medications.

But there's still a fair amount of life in lithium-ion batteries well after they reach the point that they can no longer offer sufficient power to drive an automobile.  Thus General Motors is teaming up with the Swiss-based ABB Group to reuse spent Chevy Volt batteries for use as power grid storage.

Micky Bly, GM Executive Director of Electrical Systems, Hybrids, Electric Vehicles and Batteries comments, "The Volt’s battery will have significant capacity to store electrical energy, even after its automotive life.  That’s why we’re joining forces with ABB to find ways to enable the Volt batteries to provide environmental benefits that stretch far beyond the highway."

The move makes sense on a number of levels.  The variability of alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar is perpetually used as one of the valid arguments against their widespread adoption.  However, purchasing storage to allow solar or wind installations to put out a steady power stream is often prohibitively out of the cost range of utilities, which already struggle to offer these emerging technologies at a price the market can stomach.

By reusing spent lithium-ion batteries, you take something that is typically not recycled; something worthless that is typically sent to the landfill.  And you use to it to replace something that is valuable -- fresh batteries.

The ABB Group, though, may have to wait some time before it can get its hands on the Chevy Volts' 16 kWh lithium-ion batteries.  GM promises that most of its batteries should last well over eight-years.  In fact it is so confident in their longevity that it is offering an eight-year/100,000 mile warranty on the packs.

That confidence is largely owed to the fact that GM, unlike its competitor Nissan, is offering liquid cooling and heating in the Volt's battery pack.  While cold can hinder battery performance and create dangerous driving conditions, heat is even more destructive, with the potential to permanently damage batteries.  By thermal regulating their lithium-ions with liquid-cooling (much like gaming rig makers do with CPUs and GPUs), companies like Tesla, Ford, and GM are hoping to extend lithium ion battery lives.  Meanwhile some companies like Nissan are taking a gamble, deploying weaker air-cooled systems, but delivering their vehicles at a lower price.

While GM's battery recycling initiative seems like smart thinking and will likely be followed in suit by Ford and other EV players, there's still a big ugly elephant lurking in the EV closet.  That elephant is extent of lithium stockpiles.  While most believe that there's plenty of lithium to power vehicles worldwide for 100 years or more, lithium, like oil, will eventually run out.  Perhaps it will run out 150 years from now, perhaps 400 years from now, but there will reach a point where it becomes too scarce to support a global auto economy.

Some may think that such problems will likely not impact them.  However, advances in modern medicine may cause that "not in my lifetime" mentality to come back and bite people.  And long before lithium becomes scarce enough to mandate a switch to alternatives, it will likely rise in price.  If the market has switched to electrified vehicles at that point, it will likely be reflected in an across-the-board increase in the cost of vehicles.  That's a problem that few are willing to discuss and fewer still have potential solutions to.

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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