Old vehicle batteries gain second life

By Jim Lee: Local Columnist

My car battery died recently. That got me thinking about why the car parts place wanted the old battery. The matter had to have some significance because I had to turn in the old battery to buy the new one. What would anybody want with a worn-out battery?

I found out that the lead-acid battery (such as the car/truck/motorcycle battery) is the most recycled consumer product of all. Not only does that keep prices more reasonable than making each one from scratch, it’s good for the environment. According to the Battery Council International, 97 percent of all battery lead is recycled. Compare this to 55 percent of aluminum cans, 45 percent of newspapers, and 26 percent of glass bottles and tires.

A car battery is basically made of lead, polypropylene plastic, and electrolyte (a sulfuric acid and water mixture). It weighs a little over 30 pounds. Lead (including lead compounds) is about 75 percent of this weight. The electrolyte weighs in at 15 percent, and the plastic is around 5 percent. The remaining 5 percent is silica and other residual materials.

Normally a car battery (more specifically a lead-acid starting battery for automotive use) lasts three to five years. When the battery is replaced, the new one is made from material mostly recycled from discarded batteries. As a matter of fact, most if not all of the material in that new battery has been used over and over. Aside from a very small amount of residual materials, the car battery is made of plastic, electrolyte, and lead, materials that are repeatedly recycled into generations of batteries.

The first step in this process is smashing the battery into pieces. No, it’s not done by some dude swinging a 9-pound sledge hammer. It’s done by a special facility with a permit run by people who know what they’re doing. Don’t mess with a car battery. Just install or uninstall, and only if the knowledge is there for that. The battery is broken up in a machine called a hammermill. The pieces then go into a vat and get separated. The plastic from the battery case floats to the top while the rest falls away.

The plastic is scooped up, blown dry, and melted. The molten plastic is made into pellets and sent to a battery case manufacturer. These manufacturers use leftovers better than my mother did.

The lead from the battery plates is also melted. About 65 percent of all lead produced is recycled, sometimes called secondary lead. The lead is formed into ingots ranging in size from 65 pounds to a ton each. These ingots, with the impurities removed, are sent to manufacturers to make new batteries. Cool, huh?

The last of the three main parts of a lead-acid car battery is the electrolyte, what most of us call battery acid. Electrolyte is a mixture of 35 percent sulfuric acid solution and 65 percent water. This is recycled two ways. One way is to neutralize the acid with an industrial compound — then treat, clean, test, and release the water into the sewer system. The other way is to process it into sodium sulfate. Sodium sulfate is a powder used in laundry detergent and in glass and textile manufacturing.

Now I know why I have to pay a deposit or turn in my old car battery. Not only does this cut down on the cost of a new one, it looks like it does something good for the environment. I have to admit, though, I never dreamed an old car battery could end up washing my shirt .

Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail: dr_james_lee@hotmail.com