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The hybrid - what's in it for the dismantler?

Toyota Prius Hybrid
Hybrids are now commonplace and set to turn up in all our yards, but will they be good for the car breaker?
Hybrid vehicles are now at the age where not only damaged vehicles are entering yards, but also traditional ELVs are starting to turn up. Honda’s Insight was launched in 1999, followed quickly by the Toyota Prius and we now have plenty of hybrids on UK roads. With many other manufacturers launching models this year, the sight of hybrid power trains is going to become more common-place in our yards but is that going to be good or bad?

First we need to understand what’s different in a hybrid. Basically, the hybrid can be thought of as a conventional power train with an electric motor / generator connected in. Throw in a chunky battery pack and some fancy controls and that’s about it. Conventional gearboxes have been replaced with constantly variable transmissions (CVT) which make much better use of available torque. What happens is that the conventional IC engine will drive the vehicle and charge the battery pack. If the battery pack is above a certain charge then the electric motor will use this power to assist in driving the vehicle. At low speeds on some models the electric motor can drive the vehicle without the IC engine running. The other key difference is regenerative braking. When you brake, the electric motor becomes a generator placing a resistance (and therefore a braking force on the vehicle) as power is fed back into the batteries. That’s a very simplistic overview of a hybrid’s operation but hopefully covers the concept. The electronics are the clever bit of the system which monitors and decides how much power the motor should deliver depending on traffic and driving patterns or how much load should be drawn in generator mode when braking. Because the motor / generator is an integral part of the drivetrain it can also be used for starting and stopping the IC engine.

If we look at pricing, a hybrid is around £2,000 more than say the conventional model so there isn’t going to be a lot in there that is going to make the dismantler much more than a conventional car. There is a chunky electric motor that may offer additional value as with the electronic control modules. The cabling which runs between the batteries and motor are expensive items that may suffer damage as they run under the cars. The batteries used tend to be nickel metal hydride (NiMh) which, if in good condition should have a good value as replacement cost on a vehicle is in the £1,000’s but with battery warranties of 100,000 miles the market may be limited. There may some alternative uses for the batteries such as back up power for off grid generators etc. The responsibility for disposing of batteries falls on a number organisations including manufacturers, battery producers and yourself. Be aware that these battery packs are covered by the WEEE directive and battery regulations not the ELV directive. All car makers do have recycling routes for their battery packs in place.

According to the safety information given out by Honda, from a storage point of view, the individual cells in the NiMh battery packs are solid so no leakage problem should occur if the unit is not damaged through accident or fire. If the batteries are in an overcharged state then oxygen may be given off and if over discharged then hydrogen can be given off so adequate ventilation must be considered. If batteries are damaged then take great care as any substance will be highly alkaline and burn. Nickel Metal Hydride battery electrolyte contains an alkaline solution of potassium hydroxide. Unlike a lead-acid battery which leaks electrolyte if the case is cracked, the NiMH battery electrolyte is absorbed in the cell plates and will not normally leak out if the module is cracked. Both the metal battery pack case and the battery module would have to be breached to cause a leak and that, I am told would be a rare occurrence. Also, terminals must always be insulated to prevent any risk of short circuit.

Buying is now in front of a screen
You can see the motor/generator in the flywheel housing on this Honda hybrid engine.
Battery developments are happening all the time and it is essential for you to know and understand what types of batteries are on different vehicles. Many of the electric only vehicles which are now starting to appear on the market use lithium based batteries and these are very different to the NiMh that we are discussing here. Also, as volumes increase there could well be after market suppliers of batteries which do not necessarily match the original specification.

Apart from the associated problems of battery handling and storage the big risk to dismantlers is that of electrocution. These battery packs pump out a serious voltage and amperage which can kill. Isolation is imperative when working on these vehicles. I am very concerned that although the information for hybrid dismantling is available on IDIS (international dismantling information system - available free and on-line to all dismantlers), the details do not really take into account that many of the vehicles we handle are damaged and their dismantling instructions may not be quite a straight forward as they would have us believe. I cannot stress too highly that the power in these battery packs can cause serious injury, even death so it is a serious issue for our industry.

In the safety instructions of the IDIS hybrid information it states, “They (hybrids) may only be disassembled by suitably qualified personnel who must follow appropriate procedures defined by the manufacturer”. Considering the risks involved with hybrids from untrained operatives dismantling them, I think training is essential. That car makers are paying lip service to their responsibilities when they print a statement such as the one above and then don’t offer any training to our industry. We want and need to be ‘suitably trained personnel” but it is going to take more than what appears on IDIS. What is strange is that the manufacturers train the emergency services to safely handle hybrids. Surely, we are running the same dangers. Without such knowledge it is impossible for an operator to assess the risks involved.

For those interested in hybrids, Thatcham offer a 1/2 day course, ATA - HIGH VOLTAGE ELECTRIC VEHICLES which aims to make attendees aware of the requirements for Health & Safety, best working practice and dangers associated with working on high voltage vehicles. I have also been notified of a course being setup specifically for dismantlers by an independent body that will not only look at dismantling issues of hybrids but also how to get a good return on the components. Hopefully, we can bring you more details of this next issue.

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