The 5 percent that is non-recyclable is the separator.
The closed-loop approach Volkswagen decided to adopt with its electric vehicles demands it to recover the precious raw materials contained in battery packs. In other words, recycling was also a subject at the Volkswagen Power Day, and the company announced it would use hydrometallurgy to recover up to 95 percent of battery contents.
According to Thomas Schmall, the 5 percent left refers to the battery separators, which cannot be recycled. The company presented a video with all the steps required to get the raw materials back into working batteries. This is what Transport & Environment highlighted in a recent study: how much cleaner EVs will be with recycling compared to ICE cars.
A 400-kilogram battery pack has 126 kg of aluminum, 71 kg of graphite, 41 kg of nickel, 37 kg of electrolyte, 22 kg of copper, 21 kg of plastic, and 82 kg of other raw materials. Recovering all that in an economically feasible way may be cheaper than mining for these minerals, apart from causing fewer environmental impacts.
The first Volkswagen recycling factory will be Salzgitter, not by chance one of Volkswagen’s first 40-GWh gigafactories in Europe besides the one it will have with Northvolt in Skellefteå, Sweden. Curiously, it is already operating since January, which means it is recycling battery packs from other companies.
To start the procedure, battery packs have to go through deep discharging. After the housings and attachments are removed, the modules are shredded into granulates. The liquid electrolyte is pumped out, which leaves only the granulates in the recycling chambers.
After these granulates are dried out, hydrometallurgy shows its magic. It consists of using aqueous solutions to separate the metals. The video shows something called “black powder,” which contains lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and graphite, immersed in a liquid to separate magnetic components.
The non-magnetic metals are separated from synthetic particles, leading to the final recycling stage in which the extracted raw materials are rather made available for new use or follow toward other recycling processes.
Volkswagen believes recycling will eventually help decrease costs, emit less carbon dioxide, and save natural resources. Customers will benefit from that in all situations, as well as society as a whole.