E-mobility: why battery recycling is so difficult

There’s hardly a traffic discussion that doesn’t bring up electric vehicles – and the batteries. What about the disposal of these batteries and, in some cases, hazardous ingredients? This is what a BR24 reader asked. The #factfox answers.

The ecological weak point of battery-powered e-vehicles – at least at the current stage of development – is their core component: the battery. Batteries contain lithium and cobalt, among other substances. Their mining damages the environment in the raw material countries, for example in Chile or the Congo. During the production of the batteries, fine dust is produced, and if the electricity still has a high fossil content, for example coal, also presses the CO2 load.

And what about after the battery has done its job?? “What disposal problems can arise from batteries, which also contain toxic basic substances?” a BR24 user asked us. The fact fox compiles the most important information.

Toxic liquid in the lithium-ion battery

Batteries for electric vehicles – whether cars, scooters, bikes or scooters – are almost all based on lithium-ion technology. Unlike many other batteries, such batteries do not usually contain toxic heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium or lead, but they can be recycled.

But the so-called electrolyte inside the lithium-ion cells poses problems. Because this viscous liquid, in which the electrons move, contains toxic, highly corrosive fluorine, is highly reactive and flammable. If the battery develops a crack, for example, a short circuit can form and the battery can catch fire.

Recycling centers are already struggling with batteries that end up in the trash – which they shouldn’t – and catch fire. “Batteries are often not separated from the rest of the garbage by consumers as required by law.”, says Andreas Biermann, waste disposal expert at DEKRA Certification. “In addition, in many recycling centers, the scrap is not carefully inspected upon delivery.”

Used battery: 50 percent of it must be recycled

The old batteries must not only be returned to the distributors or collection points. An EU directive requires all member states to recycle at least 50 percent of the materials in lithium-containing batteries at the end of the recycling process. This means that if a used battery goes to a recycling plant, at least half of it must actually be recycled. The rest could leave the plant non-recycled, so to speak. This requirement for the 50 percent, according to Falk Petrikowski of the Federal Environment Agency, is often already achieved to a large extent through the manual or automated dismantling of the casing, wiring and components for cooling the cells.

Six specialized recyclers in Germany

The flammable and volatile electrolyte liquid is also one of the sticking points when it comes to recycling. This must be separated from the other materials of the cells. Only a few companies have mastered such procedures, as well as the recycling of lithium-ion batteries in general.

“In Germany, there are – as of the end of 2018 – six recycling plants for used batteries containing lithium.”, says Falk Petrikowski. “The recycling processes must constantly be adapted to the new cell chemistries in such a way that the existing high safety and environmental standards are consistently met. Recyclers’ own interest in implementing demanding standards is high”, says Petrikowski. The sporadic fires in plants of spent battery sorters or. -Recyclers would have shown how extensive and serious the effects can be.

Voltage of several hundred volts

In recycling, even opening the battery is challenging. Example lithium-ion battery of an electric car: Such a battery is composed of many individual elements, similar to a modular system – battery cells form modules. Several modules are then assembled into a single housing.

The battery block of an electric car contains many battery modules strung together. Here is a Renault exhibit at the 2016 Paris Motor Show

© dpa
Image rights: dpa

In the battery block of an electric car there are many battery modules strung together. Here is a Renault exhibit, Paris Motor Show 2016.

“Depending on the design, the batteries have voltages of several hundred volts and can currently be discharged from the outside before dismantling often not so simple. The batteries are also welded or consistently glued, which makes them even more difficult to open”, explains Felk Petrikowski. And because a great many different sizes and shapes exist, there are no robots to do the job. Workers disassemble the batteries by hand.

Recycling of the battery case

After opening the battery, first the casing and wiring are removed. It contains aluminum and copper. This is the step that offers the greatest and easiest profit for recycling. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) evaluated several studies and wrote in 2018 in the final report on an expert forum: “The majority of the studies conclude that the greatest benefit is achieved in the first process steps, i.e., the mechanical disassembly of the battery packs, their housings, and battery modules, where the individual components can be separated completely and sorted by type and individually sent for suitable recycling.”

Recycling of raw materials is not always worthwhile

Many different substances are contained in the individual battery cells in only very small quantities and are difficult to extract. This means several work processes. “Cobalt is the recyclable material that makes money,” explains Felk Petrikowski, notes the expert from the Federal Environment Agency. A yield of nickel is also worthwhile – ecologically and financially. This is because the mining of both materials involves high environmental impact in the countries of origin, and the raw materials are relatively expensive. The proportion of cobalt in rechargeable batteries has fallen in recent years.

With other materials it may not be worth recycling. “Case by case”, According to the Karlsruhe Institute’s workshop report, it may even be more environmentally harmful to recycle lithium or iron than to mine new ones. Both metals are easy to recover. Although the oko-Institut in Freiburg also calls for the recovery of lithium. But extracting this material from old batteries is very complex, requires many steps and usually the use of large quantities of chemicals.

After the complete recycling process, what remains of the batteries is a kind of slag. According to Petrikowski, this can still be used, for example, for the construction of public roads or for paths in landfills.

A lot of research is being done on batteries and recycling processes. Thus, among other things, a recycling of as much as possible contained recyclable materials should be economical. Fraunhofer IWKS relies on mechanical processes that make previous chemical or thermal steps superfluous. The reduction of hazards is also being addressed in research projects.

Second life for batteries

The German government has also been funding various electromobility research projects for the past ten years. Including the possibilities for battery reuse. When the drive batteries in vehicles have reached an efficiency of 70 to 80 percent, they are usually discarded, but can still be used for other purposes. For example, Audi in Ingolstadt is testing the reuse of used batteries from e-mobiles for forklifts and tractors in its factories. Another possibility is to give the batteries in solar systems a “second life” to give.

In the case of batteries for electromobility, on the one hand lithium-ion technology is being further developed. Research is also being conducted into other types of batteries such as solid-state cells.

Conclusion:

The recycling of lithium-ion batteries from e-vehicles has to overcome several hurdles: the high voltage of several hundred volts in the batteries, the flammable and fluorine-containing liquid that has to be separated out in the work process. In addition, lithium-ion batteries contain many different substances in minute quantities, which makes many steps necessary. Recycling companies have to deal with many different makes of car. This also complicates the work.

There may be cases in which the recovery of metals, for example, is not economically or ecologically worthwhile. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology points this out in a 2018 report. Among these materials is the lithium. Cobalt or nickel are more lucrative. In Germany, there are now six recycling companies that specialize in batteries of the kind used in e-mobiles. According to the Federal Environment Agency, it is also in the interest of recycling companies to comply with standards – if only for the safety of their own operations.

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