On January 29, 2021, Volkswagen Group Components (part of the Volkswagen Group), officially launched battery recycling at its Salzgitter plant in Germany.
The project, announced in 2019, is currently in a pilot phase with a daily capacity of 5 battery systems per shift. The annual capacity is up to 3,600 per year, which at 400 kg per battery is about 1,500 tonnes.
"Larger volumes of battery returns are not expected until the late 2020s at the earliest. Therefore, the plant has been designed to initially recycle up to 3,600 battery systems per year during the pilot phase – this is the equivalent to approximately 1,500 tonnes. In future, the system can be scaled up to handle larger quantities as the process is consistently optimised."
The first step is an analysis of the battery modules to determine whether the battery is still powerful enough to be given a second life in other applications, like energy storage or low-speed electric vehicles/robots.
Only the batteries that can no longer be used for other purposes will be recycled.
The initial recovery rate is over 70% of the battery weight, while the long-term target is over 90%.
The main purpose of battery recycling is to recover raw materials (such as lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, aluminum, copper and plastics) and use them in a closed-loop, producing new battery cells.
Batteries will come from all-electric cars based on the MEB and PPE platforms as well as from plug-in hybrids. Usually, those are batteries from test vehicles, because the new customer cars are just entering the market in volume.
"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."
In a couple more years, when the EV market will mature and recycling technology advances, most of the raw materials from old batteries will be recovered and used again to produce new batteries. The mining and overall environmental impact can be this way limited to the minimum.
If, at some point in the future, we will be able to use mostly solar electricity, and use the same raw materials in new products, in closed loops, the world should be a far better place.