Part of the electric car revolution is making batteries — lots of batteries. But in the not too distant future, another part of the revolution will be dismantling those same batteries and reclaiming the materials inside to be used again in the manufacture of new batteries. What sorts of things can be reclaimed from old batteries? Aluminum, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel, and cobalt, along with various plastics. “Our goal is to create our own circular process in which more than 90 percent of each of our batteries is recycled,” says Thomas Tiedje, head of technical planning at Volkswagen Component in a blog post. “We don’t want to hand the process over at any point but prefer to train our employees and thus make them fit for the future.”
At Volkswagen, the quest for in house battery recycling technology began more than a dozen years ago when doctoral candidate Stella Konietzko said she wanted to investigate ways that lithium, cobalt, steel and aluminum could be recovered and what role Volkswagen Group could play in the process. At that time, no other automaker was interested in exploring ways to recycle batteries in house.
Her idea led to a major research project at the Technical University of Braunschweig that was supported by ten other companies. Between 2009 and 2011, they investigated several lithium ion recycling protocols and finally selected the LithoRec process which is now the subject of a pilot program at Volkswagen’s Salzgitter factory. “We didn’t start too early, but just in time. Now we have the chance to start with a process that is really economically and ecologically sustainable in the end, without having to rush anything,” explains Marko Gernuks, head of life cycle optimization at Volkswagen, who has been part of the LithoRec project manager for several years. Here’s more from the Volkswagen blog post:
Until now, used batteries have mostly been recycled in a pyrometallurgical process. In simpler terms, they simply end up in the blast furnace. Volkswagen Group Components first uses a mechanical process: Once the battery enters the recycling process, it is first drained and dismantled. Initial raw materials such as its aluminum casing, copper cable and plastic are already recovered here and returned to the production cycle. Then the battery modules are heavily crushed under a protective atmosphere and the escaping liquid electrolyte turns them into a moist mass, the granulate. This is dried, passed through various sieves and a magnetic belt, and thus becomes finer and finer.
Eventually, a so-called “black powder” is produced, which contains, among other things, valuable graphite as well as lithium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel. A partner company from the chemical industry then separates it into its individual components using a hydrometallurgical process, i.e. using water and solvents. These can be used as secondary raw material for the construction of cathodes of new batteries — without any loss of quality compared to new, primary material.
Below is a video from REC Anything that explains the process in greater detail.
Volkswagen And The Circular Economy
The components of lithium ion batteries can be recovered and reused to make new batteries — the very definition of a circular economy where depleted batteries are recycled rather incinerated or sent to landfills. The pilot phase will start with a modest goal — recycling five batteries per shift. The annual capacity will be up to 3,600 batteries a year. At 400 kg per battery, that about about 1,500 tons of recovered materials. Once the system is optimized, it can be scaled up to handle more batteries. Full capacity is not expected to occur until later this decade — which should correspond with the time when more batteries are in need of recycling.
But before the recycling begins, each battery module is carefully analyzed to determine whether it is still powerful enough to be used in a second life application such as energy storage or low speed electric vehicles and robots. Only when its useful life has been exhausted will it become part of the recycling process.
Herbert Diess, chairman of Volkswagen Group, had this to say about the beginning of the battery recycling pilot program. “Volkswagen aims to keep control of the raw material cycle for batteries at all stages. The battery and its raw materials form the foundation for the recycling economy of future mobility. This is not only a matter of recycling the valuable battery raw materials as completely as possible, but also of using the batteries elsewhere after their first life cycle in the car.
“Even after a normal car life cycle of 200,000 to 300,000 km, the battery remains by far the most valuable component in the car and will likely be used in stationary storage for a number of years after the car life. Only then will it be recycled — to the greatest extent possible. This creates a sustainable value creation cycle with numerous new business opportunities that we will utilize for Volkswagen.”
Volkswagen is not alone in developing battery recycling systems. JD Straubel, formerly the chief technology officer for Tesla, has started a new company called Redwood Materials to recycle lithium ion batteries and research into the process is ongoing in laboratories across America and around the world. Chalk up recycling as another advantage electric vehicles have over those with internal combustion engines. EVs and a circular economy go hand in hand in a way conventional vehicles never could.
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