Analysis
6 Mar 19

Recycling EV batteries to green the last mile

Greening your fleet will lead you to electrification among other strategies, but EVs still have a heavy impact on the environment because of their batteries. The last mile of the battery pack in particular needs to be addressed.

Since current EV lithium ion battery packs have an estimated life time of 10 years – or about 150,000 miles – the question of what happens next is become increasingly relevant. Moreover, higher-powered fast-charging can even increase battery degradation by as much as 400%, according to Berenberg Thematics. This means that the fast-charging EV batteries may not even reach their 10-year lifespan. Berenberg estimates that in just a couple of years already, 262,000 metric tons of lithium ion batteries – only for EVs – will need to be recycled by 2022.  

Besides a negative impact on the environment, increasing battery demand could increase the price of raw materials like lithium and cobalt. Recycling could provide the answer for both questions. VW recently announced new recycling targets (up to 97%), joining some other carmakers, and battery recycling companies.

VW – 97% of raw materials

To answer both questions, Volkswagen Group plans to launch a pilot recycling project 30 miles from its global headquarters in Wolfsburg. As from 2020, the factory will be able to receive about 1,200 tons of used automotive lithium ion battery packs a year – or the amount of batteries of about 3,000 EVs. 

Before setting up the recycle process right away, the batteries must be evaluated on their quality. The ones with enough life left receive a second life as power packs for mobile vehicle charging. The ones too close to death will be shredded and ground to fine powder in order to extract the raw materials, such as lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel. 

Within 10 years this technique should lead to a recycling rate of up to 97% of all the raw materials used in the Volkswagen EV battery packs, up from 53% today. 

In the meantime, in the USA

While in Europe and in China governments oblige automakers to pursue end-of-life strategies, in the US the recycling industry is still in its infancy. Yet, it might get a boost, considering the promise of $15 million – spread over three years – of the US Department of Energy last month to industrialise the recycling of lithium ion EV batteries. 

The funding will be used to establish cross-sectoral research between carmakers, universities and material and battery suppliers which will be coordinated by the ReCell Center in Chicago. By optimising the use of recycled materials, the cost of EV batteries must come down with 10 to 30%.

Additionally, the ReCell centre will also use other strategies to optimise the after-life use of EV batteries, such as recovery and recycling of other battery materials, direct cathode recycling, and designing future batteries as such to optimise the recapture and recycling of raw materials. 

Tesla - close the loop

EV pioneer Tesla did not wait until the US government to undertake action. The company already has several recycling strategies in place and is planning to implement a closed-loop battery recycling process at its Gigafactory battery-production locations, so recycled material can immediately be re-used. The end goal of the EV giant is to recycle and/or re-use about all its battery packs – from smartphones to EVs. 

Moreover, according to data of Tesla (2011), 10% of the battery packs can be re-used before having to be recycled, such as the battery case or some electronic components. For the recycling process they indicate in the same report of 2011 to have partnered with Kinsbursky Brothers in America and Umicore in Europe. While the first led to recycle 60% of the lithium ion battery packs, the latter even resulted in a closed loop recycling system. 

In addition, Tesla patented an idea of a battery-replace station, where the EV battery could be replaced by a brand new one at its end-of-lifetime, while the old will end up in its recycling process. 

Umicore, recycling pioneer and partner

Umicore is a pioneer when it comes to recycling EV batteries. The company not only teamed up with Tesla, but also with other car manufacturers such as Audi and BMW. Audi and Umicore are developing a closed-loop recycling programme for components of high-voltage batteries that can be used over and over again. In October 2018, they reached a milestone – according to Umicore – in their research, bringing them closer to the end target. Moreover, the research will deliver usefull insights into the purity of the recovered materials, recycling rates and the economic feasibility of concepts such as raw materials bank.

Besides Audi, Umicore announced a similar research programme with BMW and the Swedish battery specialist Northvolt as in October 2018. The closed-loop recycling scheme would start with the design of recyclable battery cells, and re-use after the end-of-lifetime as EV battery as stationary energy storage unit for instance, and when it comes really to an end the scheme aims to recycle and reuse the raw materials, hence closing the loop. This kind of research might be determining for the future uptake of recycling of lithium ion batteries, uniting the ecological, economic and driver’s interests.  

Many car manufacturers are implementing the last mile of the EV battery as a fundamental part of the entire EV battery chain, which becomes urgent considering the upcoming end-of-lifetime of the first generation EV battery packs. To get the most out of their efforts, they team up with specialised companies like Umicore. So, hopefully when the first generation of batteries is about to drive its last mile, the recycling facilities will be ready to provide them a second life, and a third, …

Authored by: Fien Van den steen
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