What are some disadvantages of e-waste

Electromobility and Recycling Recycling and disposal of e-car batteries

Interesting facts about e-car batteries

The most common batteries installed in electric cars are the powerful lithium-ion batteries. They weigh between 400 and 700 kg and can be used to drive an electric car for around eight to ten years. After that, they slowly lose their loading capacity and the range of the vehicles decreases. If the capacity no longer rises above a value of around 80%, a battery is considered worn out and will be removed. However, the batteries are not technically defective at this point in their life cycle. This is why a "second life" is now beginning for many batteries, i.e. they are being used again, for example as stationary storage for photovoltaic systems or as mobile fast charging stations. If they have had their day, manufacturers are faced with the task of recycling the batteries comprehensively.

What is an e-car battery made of?

Electric car batteries are full of valuable materials. Their recovery and recycling in the raw material cycle is essential - especially since the natural occurrence of some of these substances is limited. This applies above all to the active materials of the electrodes such as cobalt, nickel and lithium. A lithium-ion battery weighing around 400 kg contains an average of 100 kg graphite, 32 kg nickel, 11 kg cobalt, 10 kg manganese and 6 kg lithium as well as a liquid electrolyte. In addition, there are large quantities of plastic, aluminum and steel in the housing and components such as cables, circuit boards and electrode foils. While the latter can be recycled relatively easily and fed back into the corresponding material flows, the recovery of the remaining raw materials poses greater challenges for the disposal industry.

Different battery types make a uniform recycling process difficult

Before the actual recycling, the batteries must first be dismantled in order to access the energy storage, the battery cells arranged in modules. This dismantling is mostly done manually and takes about an hour per battery. This is due to the fact that a large number of different battery types are currently on the market. Their structure and the quantities of raw materials they contain vary depending on the manufacturer and are often not transparent. This stands in the way of standardizing and automating the recycling process and makes the recycling of e-vehicle batteries time-consuming and expensive.

This goes hand in hand with the question of the cost-effectiveness of battery recycling. "The income from the sale of the recycled materials does not outweigh the costs for collection, dismantling and recycling," says Falk Petrikowski from the Federal Environment Agency, summarizing the problem. The currently cheaper option is therefore the import of primary raw materials from mines, for example in the Congo. However, this involves considerable risks and ethical problems. Child labor is the order of the day in the extraction of raw materials, and armed conflicts are co-financed with the proceeds.

Process for recycling e-car batteries: Melting down

Two different methods are currently used in the recycling of batteries from e-vehicles: on the one hand, thermal melting and, on the other hand, the mechanical crushing and chemical removal of raw materials. During the thermal treatment, the battery cells are melted down. Since the metallic components have different melting points, they can be separated easily. Cobalt, nickel and copper can be recovered in this way, and in a further step lithium can also be recovered from the slag. A recycling share of an average of 60 to 70% is possible, cobalt and nickel can even be recycled up to 95%. However, graphite, aluminum and the electrolyte cannot be recycled with this method. The high energy expenditure for the process is also criticized. The market leader in the application of the thermal method is the Belgian company Umicore, which has been operating a pilot plant since 2012.

Recovering raw materials through shredding

An alternative approach is what is known as shredding, i.e. the mechanical shredding of the battery modules in a closed container. The addition of nitrogen prevents the materials from igniting and removes the electrolyte. In a further step, the resulting grist is separated according to fractions. In this way, aluminum and copper can be recovered in their pure form, as well as a high proportion of graphite, manganese, nickel, cobalt and lithium. In total, around 96% of the battery components are returned to the raw material cycle. The process was developed by the Lower Saxony chemical company Duesenfeld. The recovered raw materials are used to manufacture new batteries. The resulting CO2 emissions are 40% lower compared to new production, the company advertises.

Research and evaluation of further recycling processes

The Fraunhofer Institute for Recycling and Resource Strategy (IWKS) is researching a further approach. In the case of electrohydraulic shredding, not only individual metals should be recovered, but coherent valuable materials that can be reused directly. For this purpose, battery modules are placed under water and thus their discharge is provoked. The resulting shock waves separate individual cell components from one another. The individual materials can be separated using further separation processes. The advantage of this mechanical process is a comparatively low energy consumption. It remains to be seen which of the currently available processes is the most suitable from a cost, profit and ecological point of view. The Swiss materials testing and research institute Empa is currently investigating this.

Outdated guidelines instead of clear recycling targets

So far there are no clear guidelines on the part of politicians as to what, how and how much has to be recycled in connection with e-car batteries. The currently applicable EU directive for the disposal of old batteries dates back to 2006. The skyrocketing importance of lithium-ion batteries could not be foreseen at that time. Accordingly, there are still no separate collection or recycling targets for them. The guideline provides for a battery recovery rate of just 50 percent by weight. With e-car batteries, this value is easily achieved simply by recycling plastic, aluminum and steel in the housing parts. Interest groups are therefore placing great hopes in the revision of the EU directive that is currently taking place. For example, the ADAC calls for a listing of separate recycling targets for raw materials in disused e-car batteries, especially for key elements such as cobalt and lithium.

Ideas for a uniform collection infrastructure are in demand

Not only politicians, manufacturers too are responsible. Namely when it comes to establishing an infrastructure for collecting old e-car batteries and returning them for recycling. Lending or deposit systems for the batteries would be conceivable, according to a proposal by the Agora Energiewende think tank. That would significantly reduce the number of owners of old batteries, simplify collection and recycle as many raw materials as possible. Meanwhile, several e-car manufacturers are already working on implementing a closed life cycle for e-vehicle batteries by producing their own battery cells in cooperation with recycling companies and battery manufacturers. Agreement on uniform standards for a “design for recycling” (ecodesign) would also be desirable.

Defective e-vehicle batteries are extremely dangerous

Despite all the inconsistencies, all e-car batteries have one thing in common: Lithium-ion batteries are potentially dangerous. Due to their ingredients, they are reactive, can catch fire and are still full of energy even when discharged. Every transport of an e-car battery is therefore subject to the dangerous goods law and has to be based on the legal regulations of the ADR. Even the transport and recycling of undamaged e-vehicle batteries is associated with risks. But how do you deal with defective high-performance batteries that have been mechanically damaged in a car accident or even caught fire? Batteries that are badly damaged in this way are considered highly hazardous waste, as they can ignite, dangerous chemical reactions or the escape of toxic gases.

Recycling damaged e-car batteries: There is still a lack of experience

The transport of defective batteries is subject to clear regulations: It must be approved by the authorities, the battery must be packed in a non-flammable and non-conductive insulating material. But so far there are neither technically nor legally clear guidelines for recycling the defective batteries. There is still a lack of sufficient experience and reliable data. Only a few disposal companies specialize in recycling damaged e-car batteries. If the batteries are not handled properly, not only are valuable raw materials lost, but there is also an increased risk to the environment. Roland Pomberger, professor of waste recycling technology at the Montanuniversität Leoben, sees serious failures among the manufacturers of electric cars. They did not even deal with the possibility of a defect in the vehicles. “The entire automotive industry must finally tackle this unsolved problem together,” demands the waste expert.

Outlook: using opportunities and potential

Even if a few questions remain unanswered, it is clear that the recycling of e-car batteries and the recovery of the raw materials they contain are necessary and must be promoted. This is illustrated by an example of an extrapolation by the Helmholtz Institute Ulm on the occurrence of cobalt. As a result, given the current demand for traction batteries, the global cobalt reserves could have doubled by 2050. However, further research and innovation are necessary so that recycling only roughly covers the raw material requirements. Because due to the long service life of the batteries in the first and second use, large amounts of raw materials from recycling will not be available in the foreseeable future. “We have extrapolated that around ten percent of the battery's raw material requirement can be covered by recycling in 2030,” says Kerstin Meyer from Agora Energiewende. With lithium and cobalt it is up to 40% in the long term.

The previously manual dismantling of the lithium-ion batteries also has room for improvement. In the DeMoBat research project funded by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of the Environment, an association of 13 partners from industry and science is developing a robot-assisted dismantling factory for electric car drive batteries. In addition, environmentally friendly processes for the recovery of scarce raw materials are to be tested, which in the long term enable independence from raw material imports.