What Are Tesla Batteries?
Contrary to popular belief, a Tesla doesn't have one giant battery. Instead, it has thousands of much smaller batteries that are all connected together. These cells, which are labeled by size with numbers like 18650 and 18350, are rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.
Surprisingly, these individual battery cells are popular in the consumer market. They're used in many other consumer applications, such as cameras, flashlights, and powerful lasers.
Individual lithium-ion cells, though widely available at a low price, cannot be swapped in and out by the consumer. Tesla battery packs are complex and utilize integrated cooling systems and wires that can't be disturbed. As a result, if a few cells go bad, the whole pack may need to be replaced.
There's no cost-effective way to fix a failing Tesla battery pack if it degrades due to age or overuse. And every Tesla battery pack will degrade a little bit every time it's charged and discharged, and more of these cycles are accelerated.
So, what happens to these massive battery packs when they pass their prime? And is there a proper and improper way to dispose of them?
Dangers of Old Tesla Batteries
As it turns out, lithium-ion batteries are one of the most dangerous automotive components to date. Not only are they made with toxic materials, but these chemicals could be highly volatile. Even a dead lithium-ion battery cell can explode if it's punctured or heated.
Allowing the chemicals that cause such violent reactions to seep into the environment is ecologically harmful. These chemicals can damage ecosystems, poison groundwater, and do noticeable harm to virtually every part of the ecosystem.
Plus, simply acquiring these raw materials for the production of batteries is harmful to the environment and dangerous to the health of the workers who do it.
Can Tesla Batteries Be Recycled?
Thankfully, dumping used Tesla batteries directly into the environment is becoming economically unjustifiable. This is excellent news, as it encourages the company to recycle used batteries and reduces the amount of raw materials that must be extracted from the earth.
Benefits of Recycling
Most batteries are difficult to make and contain rare and toxic ingredients. With current technology, this is inescapable. But the benefits of recycling batteries are numerous. They come in the form of reduced raw material requirements, less mining, more efficient production, less waste, and less toxic dumping in the air, water, and dirt.
Lead-acid batteries, such as traditional car batteries, have been recycled for years. Back in the 1970s, the majority of old car batteries were dumped in the ocean or burned. But now, 100% of the toxic lead is captured and used again in new batteries. Similar processes are under development for lithium-ion batteries, which are more difficult to recycle.
Lithium-ion batteries contain many more valuable materials than old lead-acid car batteries. The materials that recyclers aim to extract from old batteries or chiefly rare metals like cobalt, lithium, manganese, pan nickel. These metals can also be quite toxic if dumped in the environment, and mining them is shockingly damaging to the environment.
Newly developed recycling technologies can extract more of these metals than before, and technology is rapidly progressing.
Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Challenges
Recycling old lead-acid batteries is comparatively simple. It's just a matter of separating the lead from the acid in the plastic casing, cleaning it, and melting down the lead. Lithium-ion batteries are much more volatile and chemically complex, and recycling them has proven to be quite difficult.
Current recycling methods aren't particularly efficient, and some material is lost in the process. The batteries themselves remain volatile until they are disassembled and not down, which makes handling potentially damaged cells hazardous.
Engineers have developed better recycling technology during the last decade, and Tesla is contributing as well. However, cost remains the biggest barrier, and it will be some time before it's attractively cheap to recycle all lithium-ion batteries. Until then, thousands of tons of batteries and their precious metals will end up in landfills.
Does Tesla Recycle Batteries?
Very few electronics manufacturers bother recycling old batteries. The justification was that it’s simply too expensive, or they just don't care. Tesla is different, as it recognizes the risk that increased lithium-ion battery use poses to the environment and chooses to do something about it.
Tesla recycles 100% of the electric car batteries it receives from customers. Tesla plans to expand these operations dramatically. It recently stated that its battery manufacturing facilities in the United States will accept used Tesla batteries on-site for processing.
How Tesla Battery Recycling Works
Tesla spends an enormous amount of time and capital developing effective ways to collect and recycle its used lithium-ion battery cells. Additionally, the company has recently announced it managed to capture 92% of the useful materials in lithium-ion batteries during recycling.
The first step in recycling an old Tesla battery is the collection. Thankfully, Tesla owners won't have to do any of the heavy lifting. A Tesla battery pack can't be disassembled by an owner, and it weighs more than 1000 pounds. When the battery reaches the end of its service life, it will be extracted from the car by a technician and brought to a Tesla battery facility.
There, the battery will be disassembled. The individual cells are shredded in a secure environment and heated at very high temperatures. At this point, the melted-down batteries will form a black goo that's rich in useful materials.
Once the batteries are melted down, a more complex chemical extraction process will begin. The process can extract more than 90% of the rare and potentially toxic materials.
Under perfect conditions, these materials get refined and sent right back through the factory to produce new batteries. In reality, current technology allows about 10% to be used immediately in the production of car parts, while the rest is used for other things.
Additional processes make use of the rest of the materials, allowing Tesla to claim it recycles 100% of the batteries. It is recycling in the truest sense of the word. At this time, Tesla's preferred recycling partner Toxco does most of the heavy lifting.
Does Tesla Take All Old Batteries?
At this time, Tesla accepts all defective and worn-out batteries from its vehicles. However, you probably can't just drive up to the factory and dump a couple of tons of miscellaneous batteries for recycling.
Tesla's recycling obligation only extends to the batteries that it produces. The company currently lacks the capacity to recycle all of the world's lithium-ion batteries. But given the exquisite engineering capabilities and ambitions of the company, only time will tell if they'll eventually make recycling cost-effective enough to accept all used electronics batteries.
Thankfully, any places where you can take other lithium-ion batteries for recycling. Towns and cities typically have dedicated electronics and battery drop-off stations, and many electronics stores accept them for free.
Cost to Recycle a Tesla Battery
So, what does it cost you to have your Tesla Battery recycled at the factory? The recycling itself doesn't cost you anything, with the service and battery replacement certainly will. The typical cost to have a battery replaced in a Tesla is around $14,000, though it varies based on the age and type of vehicle.
Recycling itself costs Tesla about $4.50 per pound of material, averaging out to roughly $6750 per battery. Recycling has a hefty price tag, but the value of the recovered materials is also substantial. If recycled domestically, these materials that aren't mined in the United States don't have to cross an ocean to make it back into Tesla's factories.
About The Author
I've spent many years selling cars, working with auto detailers, mechanics, dealership service teams, quoting and researching car insurance, modding my own cars, and much more.Read More About Charles Redding