Here's What Happens to a Tesla Electric Car Battery at the End of Its Life

A black electric car battery in a bright blue car.

Nick Ares / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

August 2009 Update: Tesla Motors is Now Profitable, Shipped 109 Electric Roadsters in July
Electric Car Batteries

A Tesla battery on a table in a room with tools.

Rahul Nair / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Three years ago, we were already trying to reassure people about hybrid car batteries. There seems to be a lot of myths surrounding them, and now's a good time for a little mythbusting. Tesla has just released information about what happens to its battery packs (pictured above) at the end of their useful lives, and we think it's a good case study.

Tesla's Electric Roadster Battery

A Tesla Roadster battery at a car show.

Alan Gore / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

First, we learn that the cells are manufactured in Japan where there are relatively strict environmental laws, and meet the RoHS standards. They are mostly made of lithium metal oxides with zero lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, PBBs or PBDEs. In fact, there no heavy metals, nor any toxic materials. Tesla says that, by law, its battery cells could be landfilled, though that's not what they actually do.

There are some exciting potential uses for the [Energy Storage System] ESS in its afterlife. While our ESS is designed to maximize performance and life in our roadster, at some unfortunate point, the ESS will come to the end of its useful life in the application :( . However, it might be possible to use the ESS in other applications. For example, the ESS could be used as a power source for off-grid backup or load leveling. The battery requirements for such an application are not as demanding as a high performance vehicle battery. This being said, eventually the batteries will no longer hold a significant charge and will need to be disposed of.

So the batteries might not go straight from cars to recycling, but when they eventually do, Tesla will be working with Kinsbursky Brothers, Inc.(KBI)/Toxco to:

  • maximize the amount of materials that can be reused
  • maximize the amount of materials that can be recycled
  • minimize energy consumption utilized during the transportation and recycling process

In practice, the cells are sent to a hammer mill that turns them into pulp (second photo in this post). They then separate the elements and re-use what can be re-used (cobalt, aluminum, nickel, and copper, etc).

So the battery pack saves thousands of gallons of gasoline/diesel over the life of the vehicle, it is less toxic than the lead-acid batteries that are in regular cars, and at the end of its life it is recycled (which is more than can be said about most things in our society).

The Tesla, and electric vehicles in general, are certainly not perfect and there's lots of room for improvement. But it's nowhere near as bad as those who think battery packs are toxic waste believe.