Designing, developing and engineering an electric vehicle is all about sustainability. After all, over their lifetime, EVs are much more environmentally friendly than traditional vehicles. However, when Nissan engineers were drafting the plans for the first-generation all-electric LEAF, they had a key insight: Developing electric cars had to be about more than vehicle performance. This new technology had to become an integral part of how our world works.
Today, this means breakthroughs like Nissan's Blue Switch project, which turns electric cars into clean, quiet and mobile emergency power supplies in the aftermath of natural disasters. Already from the very beginning more than a decade ago, the team at Nissan was thinking how one of the most crucial parts of an EV – its battery – could play a role well beyond the lifetime of the car it powers.
That's why – already several months before the very first LEAF came to market in December 2010 – Nissan partnered with Sumitomo Corp. to set up 4R Energy Corp. Its purpose: develop the technology and infrastructure to refabricate, recycle, resell and reuse the batteries in Nissan EVs – not for their scrap value, but to power other things.
Eiji Makino has been involved with 4R Energy since its very beginning and became its CEO in April 2014. He's passionate to find solutions that extend the environmental and economic value of EV batteries. "We knew that when it came to an EV, the recycling solution had to be much cleverer than the norm and have distinct benefits for EV owners," Makino says. "Simply recycling an old car for scrap metal wouldn't be good enough."
It took quite some time for 4R Energy to develop the right technologies and concepts. Then again, they had plenty of time, because EVs like the LEAF and their batteries are remarkably resilient. Now that some of the LEAF batteries have indeed come to the end of their useful life in a car, 4R is ready to process them. The result: the batteries instantly gain extra value beyond what they would usually be expected to deliver during their normal lifetime.
When an old EV battery reaches the 4R factory, it is first graded. Sometimes, the battery components are as good as new; they get an "A" grade and can be reused in new high-performance battery units for a new EV. With a "B" grade, the batteries are powerful enough for industrial machinery like forklifts and large stationary energy storage. Deployed in a home or commercial facility, for example, they can capture surplus electricity generated during the daytime by solar panels and then power the building during the night. Even the components of a battery that gets a "C" grade can still be put to use – for example in units that supply backup power when the electric grid fails, say at grocery stores that must have their refrigerators and lights running even during a power outage. The engineers at 4R Energy estimate the recovered batteries have a life span of about 10 to 15 years, dramatically extending the usefulness of EV batteries and reducing their overall carbon footprint.
Makino has another and just as important argument for recycling EV batteries: Most electric cars are still more expensive to produce and buy than traditional cars with internal combustion engines. That is more than outweighed by the lifetime benefit of EVs, of course, because owners can typically expect lower maintenance costs and far lower "fueling" costs. With Nissan and 4R technology, however, the owners of electric cars may find that the battery in their old car could be a significant asset. By creating demand for batteries that are past their useful life, 4R helps bring down the total cost of ownership for electric vehicles even more. Owners don't have to sell their old car just for scrap but can get much higher value for its battery, which results in a nice end-of-life return on their investment.
Energy keeps finding new ways to refabricate, recycle, resell and reuse EV batteries. On Yumeshima, a manmade island in western Japan's Osaka, a solar farm is using 16 lithium-ion EV batteries to cope with energy fluctuations and store its energy output.
On Koshikishima, an island off the coast of southwestern Japan, 4R Energy has created an innovative battery management system that makes it possible for wind and solar energy to power the charging network that supports a fleet of all-electric vehicles. It’s the first of its kind and makes an important contribution to the goal of the 5,000 residents to make Koshikishima an "eco island" with zero CO2 emissions.
The company is also developing battery systems that help integrate solar power, local battery storage and the electricity in EVs – and can be used as a home’s emergency power supply. Another use case are the batteries for the automated guided vehicles that are becoming ever more important in modern factories and warehouses.
Ten years after the launch of the first all-electric Nissan LEAF, Makino is finally seeing his original vision come true. His team of engineers is giving EV batteries a second life, which makes electric cars affordable and more attractive to buy, and delivers true sustainability. Always ahead of the curve, 4R Energy is now putting everything in place to provide the same "4R" support – recycle, refabricate, reuse, resell – for the next generation of electric vehicles from Nissan, starting with the new all-electric Ariya. Nissan is planning to launch a whole range of new all-electric car models. The research and development by 4R, which was 10 years in the making, is finally paying off, for the better of electric car owners and the planet.