Face CASE17 Face

Spare Parts Supply Division, Customer Service Operations, Honda Motor Co., Ltd. and Japan Metals & Chemicals Co., Ltd.

Nobuo Ito, Manager of MH Production Group, Production Dept., Japan Metals & Chemicals Co., Ltd.

Nobuo Ito, Manager of MH Production Group, Production Dept., Japan Metals & Chemicals Co., Ltd.

The cornerstone of development was establishing a process for the pulverization of calcinated batteries.

 IMA batteries come in the form of square boxes mounted to the car body. These boxes are filled with cylindrical modules that look like dry cell batteries packed in lines.
 Taisuke Honma, Deputy Manager of Oguni Works, Japan Metals & Chemicals Co., described the recycling process: “First, we disassemble the battery and remove the modules. These are calcinated at high heat, pulverized, and then the iron scrap and powder are separated. When this is done well, the rare metals and rare earths can be recovered by subjecting the powder to chemical processes.”

 Calcination and pulverization are required to extract the rare earths. That was already obvious to all the engineers previously engaged in recycling. The real technical challenge was how to make the calcination and pulverization process as efficient as possible, to extract the greatest possible quantity of rare earths.

 “We particularly struggled with the calcination and pulverization processes,” said Tsunokake. “The rare metals and rare earths are mainly at the base of the battery electrodes. Calcinating this part oxidizes the rare metals and rare earths, which can then be pulled off in the pulverization. In the end, we kept working through trial and error for about a year until we found the optimal pulverization method.”
 Maki explained the difficulty of this process using a jelly roll as an analogy: “Comparing this to a jelly roll, it’s like taking out only the jelly. If the pulv erization process is not right and the jelly does not separate well, then the quantity of the recovered jelly will decline.”

IMA battery

IMA battery

IMA battery dismantling process

IMA battery dismantling process

Removed modules

Removed modules

Calcinated modules

Calcinated modules
 After pulverization, the base and other iron scrap is removed, and the powder is recovered and dissolved in acid. Then the pH is adjusted using liquid chemicals and a substance called rare earth salts precipitates. Electrolysis is then used to obtain the rare earth metals (rare earths turned into metals). It is also possible to recover nickel-cobalt alloys (NiCo alloys) from the remaining liquid after recovering the rare earth salts.
 Nobuo Ito, Manager of MH Production Group, Production Dept., Japan Metals & Chemicals Co.. explains “With this approach, we can recover all the different types of rare earths contained in the batteries. We discovered the ideal pH and temperature values for the reactions based on theoretical values and by conducting repeated experiments.”
 In this way, Japan Metals & Chemicals Co. arrived at some technical prospects for commercializing the recycling of rare earths.

At the Japan Metals & Chemicals Co. plant, the IMA battery recycling line has state-of-the-art facilities in a pre-war building.

At the Japan Metals & Chemicals Co. plant, the IMA battery recycling line has state-of-the-art facilities in a pre-war building.

Not just a battery can also be used for motors and other applications in the future. 

 In the spring of 2012, the rare earths recycling business finally went into operation. The plant has a maximum processing capacity of around 400 tons per year, with rare earth production on the order of two tons per month. This was the first time in the world that rare earths had been recycled not on a laboratory scale, but as a mass production process. Another notable fact is that the recovered resources will be reused as material for new batteries.
 Norihiro Toba, Manager, Battery Materials Group, Battery Materials Dept., Japan Metals & Chemicals Co. explained: “As a materials manufacturer, our company is well aware of the demands for material quality and composition. That’s why we’re able to produce materials that can be reused. That’s the difference between us and companies that only do recycling.”

 While Honda IMA batteries are the only item being processed at present, the recycling process established for the batteries can also be used for motors and other items. “We still have excess processing capacity. We want to reach full capacity utilization as early as possible,” says Hata.
 Even a year ago, no one would have believed that rare earth recycling could be made into a profitable business. The dream that Maki and Tsunokake spoke of achieving in 2015 at that hot spring deep in the mountain has been realized four years ahead of schedule. Their enthusiasm pulled in those around them to draw the future nearer.

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