Broad schematic of Honda’s new battery recycling system. Credit: Honda.

Without indigenous supplies, Japan’s government has been making aggressive moves to establish rare earth recycling programs, and the country’s automotive manufacturers were expected to be among the leaders. Sure enough, one manufacturer has just announced it is nearly ready to launch a large-scale effort to recycle rare earths. What’s surprising, to me, is that announcement is coming from Honda and not behemoth competitor, Toyota.

Last week, the Honda revealed it has been setting up what it claims is the first mass-production process to recapture rare earth metals from used Honda parts and will have the plant in operation by the end of April. This is a actually a joint effort with Honda working with Japan Metals & Chemicals Co.

In particular, Honda seems to be aiming first at recovering rare earth in used nickel-metal hydride batteries and claims it will harvest the rare earths from batteries from both Japan and other markets. Honda had already been recycling the nickel content. Honda says it plans in the future to use the rare earth extraction process on a variety of used parts.

Honda is the second-leading manufacturer of passenger cars in Japan, but Toyota produces three-times that number. Honda has sold around 800,000 HEVs, but again, it is dwarfed by Toyota, which has sold 3.5 million (including 2.5 million Prius sedans). Toyota also uses a lithium-ion battery in some of its HEV and plug-in HEV vehicles.

Honda says, “the successful stabilization of the extraction process at the plant of Japan Metals & Chemicals Co., Ltd. made possible the extraction of rare earth metals in a mass-production process with purity as high as that of newly mined and refined metals.” Honda claims it can recover 80% of rare earth metals contained in the used NiMH batteries.

Japan is the world’s biggest importer of rare earths, and in February the government announced that it initially would be offering $65 million in subsidies for projects that would allow the nation to reduce rare earth imports, including recycling efforts, followed by another $45 million later in the year. The government is also considering other steps to require central and local government officials to support rare earth recycling. A story in The Japan Times Online reports that the nation’s Environment Ministry says, “the annual amount of used electronic products disposed of in Japan stands at 650,000 tons, from which 280,000 tons of rare earth and other metal resources worth ¥84.4 billion [$1.03 billion] could potentially be recycled.”

Some are giving Honda praise for setting the standard for other manufacturers, and it is somewhat surprising to see Honda make this type of announcement before Toyota. On the other hand, Honda’s smaller size gives it less bargaining power with rare earth importers and, perhaps, it was feeling more pressure to act quickly.

In late 2010, Hitachi also announced a rare earth recycling program, aimed at recovering materials from compressors and computer hard drives, and said at that time that it hoped its system would be functioning by 2013.