Original interview published in CleanTechnica
March 11, 2021 – Zachary Shahan
The electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling industry is just starting to form. While the number of electric vehicles on the road gets more inspiring day after day, very few have gone through a long life and strolled into the retirement office, which is typically the point where it would make sense for an EV to pass along its batteries for either recycling or reuse. However, the EV market is maturing enough that companies are sprouting up to these needs, and some automakers are setting up their own in-house recycling operations.
Volkswagen — A Battery Recycling Company?
This week, Volkswagen provided an update on its efforts in this regard. “Transforming the world to run on electric vehicles will take millions of batteries, and even though the EV revolution has just kicked off, there’s growing questions about how to handle batteries at the end of their useful lives, and where all the materials needed to build new batteries will come from.
“Earlier this year, the Volkswagen Group provided one answer to both these challenges, opening its first EV battery recycling plant in Salzgitter, Germany, the result of more than a decade of research. Designed to be more energy efficient than current battery recycling techniques, the pilot plant has a goal of being able to recapture up to 95 percent of the materials in an EV battery pack for potential reuse – including rare metals that store electricity.”
Consider the cost of an EV battery and then consider the plan to recycle 95% of the components in it. Of course, there’s still the cost of dismantling the battery, reprocess components if necessary, and putting the components into a new battery or other technology. Still, large-scale battery recycling makes a lot of sense. Recall that Tesla cofounder and longtime CTO JB Straubel ended up leaving Tesla to focus on an EV battery recycling startup he launched, Redwood Materials.
Sieve | The sieve is used to separate the valuable cell materials — black powder (lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt) — from the other raw materials. Image courtesy of Volkswagen.
You may wonder, as I have from time to time, if the materials in a used battery are really of a decent quality after all that use. Volkswagen is happy to tell us that they are.
“We know from many years of research that recycled battery raw materials are just as efficient as new ones,” says Mark Möller, Head of Technical Development & E-Mobility Business Unit at Volkswagen Group Components. “We plan to support our cell production in the future with the material we have recovered. We really want to use every possible gram of recovered material as the demand for batteries rises sharply.”
The company also notes what it is doing different from the norm to try to reach 95% reclaimed content. Apparently, the norm is to smelt the metals in a furnace, but that typically leads to a measly 60% material recovery rate. Volkswagen, however, is using mechanical processes to pick the batteries apart and pluck out all the goodies. “In an 880-lb. battery pack, the plant can recover about 220 pounds of key electrode minerals like lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese. This positions Volkswagen as a pioneer in building a recyclable materials cycle with great potential for helping reduce the need for mining of raw materials and improving raw material supply.”
At the moment, Volkswagen’s Salzgitter battery recycling plant can go through this process with 3,600 EV batteries. Expect to see that number grow in leaps and bounds in years to come.
Also in the Volkswagen Group stable, we reported a year ago that Audi was partnering with Umicore to get its EV batteries recycled.
We also recently reported that a lithium-ion battery recycling company, Li-Cycle, is soon going public (via a SPAC). Johnna Crider followed that news up by sitting down with one of their cofounders, Chief Commercial Officer Kunal Phalpher, who explained their process a bit and also noted that they intend to recover approximately 95% of the materials in the lithium-ion batteries they recycle.
“Li-Cycle developed a technology to maximize efficiency and make it an economic business case to recycle lithium-ion batteries and bring the various — not just lithium but all of the materials also back into the supply chain,” Phalpher said. “So, very simply, we have a two-stage process what we call our Spoke and Hub and it consists of a mechanical and then a chemical process which allows us to take all types of batteries so it’s not just your consumer electronics.”
Li-Cycle is currently processing 5,000 tonnes of lithium-ion batteries a year, which is a capacity of about 10,000 EV batteries a year.
We reported in January that Li-Cycle has already partnered up with bus manufacturer New Flyer to recycle electric bus batteries.
US Department of Energy Stimulating More Innovation
The US Department of Energy (DOE) is also doing its part to try to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship in this field. In December, the DOE announced the seven winners of Phase II of the Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize. In this phase, focused on prototypes and partnerships, $2.5 million was awarded. That had followed a phase focused on concept development and incubation in which $1 million was awarded.
Then, in January, the DOE announced the rules for Phase III of the Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Prize. In this third phase, $2 million is being awarded to up to 4 winners (maximum of $500,000 each). This phase is focused on contestants who are designing real-world pilot projects to validate their technology solutions.
The Phase 2 winners were eligible to participate in Phase III. The participating teams collaborate with both industry experts and scientists and engineers from DOE’s National Laboratories.
“The phased prize competition is designed to help find innovative solutions to collecting, storing, and transporting discarded lithium-ion batteries for eventual recycling,” the DOE writes.
“The goal of this Prize is to develop and demonstrate processes that, when scaled, have the potential to profitably capture 90% of all discarded or spent lithium-based batteries (LIBs) in the United States, and re-introduce key materials into the U.S. supply chain,” the DOE added in January.
The EV battery recycling market is just heating up. Let us know if you spot any other exciting stories you think we should cover.