Drive Batteries – Valuable to the Very End

Lithium-ion batteries in electric cars are powerhouses with a lot of power. If, after a few years, the power is no longer sufficient for the road, they are given a second life in stationary storage facilities. It’s at the very end that battery life becomes fully sustainable – the recyclable materials in the cells can be used to produce new batteries.

Die Produktion einer Lithium-Ionen-Battere: Im Inneren der Energiespeicher stecken unter anderem kiloweise Lithium, Kobalt, Nickel und Mangan. Foto: Shutterstock - fishman64

The production of a lithium-ion battery: The energy storage system contains, among other things, kilos of lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese. Foto: Shutterstock – Fishman64

Thinking of electric cars’ sustainability in terms of drive systems, the focus inevitably shifts to the lithium-ion batteries installed in them. In future, car manufacturers will phase out drive batteries after no more than ten years because they no longer meet the requirements for power and energy density. By then, the batteries will still have approximately 2,500 charging cycles in them and retain around 80 percent energy content of their original capacity. That’s a lot of power and therefore far too good to waste. In fact, these capacities can be used for a second life. The batteries can store surplus electricity from energy sources such as sun or wind and use it to supply homes, industrial plants, or entire city districts. They charge and discharge more slowly on the job than in an electric car, which means less stress for the cells. In the best-case scenario, this means that a battery can last for five to ten more years of service.

Second Life – new chances in the energy revolution

Some car manufacturers are already using the talents of their traction batteries for new business models. Nissan, for example, lights up the playing field of the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam with green electricity from a storage facility with around 600 used units from its electric fleet. Daimler is involved in the energy revolution with technology company The Mobility House. The Swabians have equipped two stationary storage facilities in North Rhine-Westphalia at the Lünen and Werdohl-Elverlingsen locations with around 1,000 discarded batteries. Meanwhile, Renault is kicking things up another notch – this year, the French are planning to connect around 2,000 discarded batteries to the grid as part of the “Advanced Battery Storage” project. Creative solutions for Second Life can be found at Audi and VW. At the main plant in Ingolstadt, used lithium-ion batteries from test vehicles and plug-in hybrids are replacing the lead batteries in industrial trucks. The Wolfsburg company, in turn, applies used batteries as energy storage devices in the series production of mobile rapid charging stations.

Traction batteries – still valuable at the end

The last phase of battery use begins with recycling. However, a quick job at the scrap yard is out of the question. “Lithium-ion batteries in electric cars are categorized as industrial batteries and, together with products such as airbags, dry ice, and liquid nitrogen, rank in hazardous goods class nine,” explains Andreas Biermann, waste disposal expert at DEKRA Certification. “In practice, this means that, due to their ingredients and high energy density, batteries pose a potential hazard that requires strict rules for handling, transport, and storage.” The recycling of lithium-ion batteries is therefore a task for specialists.

In Germany, around half a dozen companies have the know-how and necessary technologies to unearth the treasures inside energy storage facilities. These include kilograms of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese. New batteries can be produced with the recovery of these chemical elements – relevant studies assume that from 2040 onward, the demand for cobalt can be covered by up to 25 percent and for lithium by up to 45 percent from recycled materials for new batteries. The price of recyclables is already hot – on the raw materials market, around 12,000 euros are currently payable for a ton of nickel and around 27,000 euros for a ton of cobalt.

Zerkleinerung und Extraktion des Elektrolytes. Foto: Duesenfeld

Crushing and extraction of the electrolyte: Mechanical processing separates the electrolyte from other materials such as aluminium and copper. Photo: Duesenfeld GmbH

Recycling of lithium-ion batteries – high quotas are feasible

A big player in the recycling business is Belgian company Umicore, which cooperates with car manufacturers Audi and BMW, and currently recycles batteries from Formula E racing cars. Umicore combines several technological processes in which the battery is first mechanically shredded and then melted down in a high-temperature furnace installed near Antwerp. Umicore recovers cobalt, nickel, and copper from the melt. A relatively new competitor is Duesenfeld GmbH in Wendeburg. The company from Lower Saxony is committed to a small carbon footprint in their production. At the heart of the plant is a powerful shredder that crushes battery modules into fine granules in a closed and nitrogen-enriched atmosphere. The recyclables are then separated in an acid bath.

Researchers at RWTH Aachen University assume that a recycling process is only efficient if it recovers at least 90 percent of valuable materials, such as lithium and cobalt. Such rates are already a reality for waste management companies. However, the industry lacks a legal framework. “To date, there are neither collection- nor recycling quotas for lithium-ion batteries from industrial applications,” says DEKRA expert Andreas Biermann. It’s quite possible that this will change soon. The European Commission intends to present a proposal for a new legal framework before the end of this year, which will improve the sustainability of the battery value chain for electric mobility.

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