How are lead batteries recycled

Battery recycling: How batteries from electric cars are recycled

How are batteries from electric cars recycled? We present companies from Germany and Europe who recycle batteries from e-cars. Each uses a different battery recycling process.

Photo: panthermedia.net/maxxyustas

Battery-powered electric cars are the subject of criticism. Not only because of their inadequate range for many people, but above all because of their dubious environmental balance. The built-in batteries collect a large number of important and rare raw materials inside, which are usually no longer used at the end of their life cycle. The recycling processes that are being established and the raw material cycle that is still in its infancy are to blame. But it won't stay that way. Companies and research institutions around the world are working on recycling used batteries from electric cars and making the raw materials usable again. We present some approaches.

Umicore burns the batteries

The Belgian company Umicore is the market leader in battery recycling of the most common type to date, thermal melting. The battery is first burned and then ground up. In this way, cobalt, nickel and the copper from the battery can be recovered. However, the raw materials lithium, graphite, aluminum and the electrolyte cannot be recycled. All of these raw materials cannot be fed back into the cycle. Last year, Audi entered into a research collaboration with Umicore to develop a closed circuit for high-voltage batteries. The recycling of old battery materials should be in the foreground. Results are not yet available.

Duesenfeld shows how to scrap batteries

The German chemical company Duesenfeld has meanwhile put a shredder under nitrogen and dismantles the otherwise highly flammable lithium-ion battery until only one thing remains: shredded material and electrolyte. Duesenfeld extracts the former raw materials graphite, manganese, nickel, cobalt and lithium from the shredded material. They go into (re-) production in order to build new drive batteries from them. The procedure is explained in the following video. The success:

  • 96% of all battery components are fed into a new cycle
  • the CO2-Footprint in the production of new batteries is reduced by 40% compared to new production

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Fraunhofer IWKS separates functional materials

The Fraunhofer Institute for Recyclable Materials and Resource Strategy IWKS does not only want to recover individual metals or raw materials, but also related functional materials, i.e. materials. To do this, the IWKS relies on a mechanical process that consumes little energy. In electrohydraulic shredding, controlled shock waves are used that can dismantle the most common of all batteries, namely lithium-ion batteries.

Photo: Fraunhofer IWKS

The process of electro-hydraulic shredding is as follows. First, the battery cells swim in water. By discharging, the system provokes a shock wave that separates individual components of the cells. To do this, the system uses existing weak points in material composites. To dismantle one kilo of batteries, the electrohydraulic shredding system requires around 1.5 kilowatt hours of electricity. After around 2,000 to 5,000 pulses, a standard round cell is dismantled into its individual parts. Housing parts, electrode foils, separators and, of course, active materials for the electrodes (nickel-cobalt-manganese oxide) can now be separated and reused using separation processes such as sieving or flotation. The chemically active substances according to the IKWS method can, unlike individual elements, be used again directly.

At the same time, the Fraunhofer IWKS is working on the further development of its recycling process in order to be able to recycle alternative battery technologies such as lithium-sulfur batteries or solid-state batteries based on lithium economically.

Empa is looking for the ideal recycling process for batteries

In Switzerland, Rolf Widmer and his team at the Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt, or Empa for short, are looking for the perfect process. Together with the Autorecycling Foundation of the Swiss automobile importers, they want to examine the various forms of battery recycling, its costs, yields and ecological impact. They will take a close look at Umicore and Duesenfeld, but also the process of the Swiss Batrec Industrie AG. It first carries out a thermal treatment of the batteries before they subject the components to wet exhaust and dry exhaust gas cleaning.

The Batrec process of battery recycling.

Photo: Batrec Industrie AG

At the end of the Empa investigations, there should be a strategy as to how drive batteries should ideally be disposed of.

Second Life for discarded batteries

When batteries have reached their zenith in electric cars after 8 to 10 years and need to be removed, there is another option than to dismantle them directly and recycle the components. After all, we are talking about a large number of rechargeable batteries: The IWKS anticipates that around 500 million lithium-ion battery cells will have to be disposed of in the USA alone by 2020. Some of it is still able to provide performance, even if not enough for battery-powered mobility. Instead of recycling them, an alternative use would be conceivable, for example as a stationary energy storage device.

VW, Daimler, Audi and BMW are following this concept of second life. The disused batteries with reduced charging capacity should continue to be used as a power bank. VW's mobile fast charging station is to be mass-produced from 2020.

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A contribution by:

  • Lisa Diez-wood

    The author was content manager for the TechnikKarriere-News-Portal of the VDI Verlag from 2017 to the end of 2019. She previously wrote for VDI nachrichten as an editor.