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Volkswagen Shares a New Method of Recycling EV Batteries That Can Recover up to 95% of Materials for Potential Reuse

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【Summary】German automaker Volkswagen has shared a new way to recycle EV batteries which the company says can reclaim up to 95% of the materials in a battery pack for potential reuse, including rare materials.

Eric Walz    Mar 09, 2021 8:45 AM PT
Volkswagen Shares a New Method of Recycling EV Batteries That Can Recover up to 95% of Materials for Potential Reuse
Workers prepare a battery pack for processing at Volkswagen's EV battery recycling plant in Salzgitter, Germany.

The millions of electric vehicles that automakers plan to build over the next decade will lead to a boom in electric vehicle battery recycling. Once a large EV battery is at the end of its service life, it cannot be simply thrown away. 

But German automaker Volkswagen has shared a new way to recycle EV batteries which the company says can reclaim most of the materials in a battery pack for potential reuse, including the rare materials.

The automaker recently opened its first EV battery recycling plant in Salzgitter, Germany, which it says was the result of more than a decade of research. The pilot battery recycling factory is designed to be more energy efficient than current battery recycling techniques, according to Volkswagen. 

The goal of the facility is to recapture up to 95 percent of the materials in an EV battery pack for potential reuse, including building new batteries using the recovered materials.

However it's not just purely electric vehicles that come with lithium-ion or lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC) batteries, they are also used in hybrids and plug-in hybrids, so automakers like Volkswagen are working on efficient ways to recycle the batteries or repurpose them for a second life.

"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."

While electric vehicles are environmentally friendly, the batteries that power them are not. EV batteries contain a variety of materials, including electrode minerals like lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese.  

The typical process for recovering these materials has been to melt the battery pack in a high-heat furnace. However using this method only around 60% of the materials are recovered, according to Volkswagen.

The process being developed for Volkswagen's Salzgitter plant uses several mechanical steps designed to recover a battery pack's materials for reuse.

Once the EV battery packs are unloaded at the factory, they are tested and discharged of all energy. At this stage, any individual battery cells which are still good are saved.

Separating the chemicals and solid materials takes several steps, beginning with shredding the battery using a machine with large mechanical cutting wheels. The shredding process creates a slurry of granules and battery chemicals. The granules are then dried and the electrolyte is pumped out.

The leftover dried materials are then shifted to separate the lithium, manganese, cobalt and graphite. At this stage, magnetic raw materials are separated from the granule. The next step involves separating the non-magnetic materials.

Once the process is complete, the battery pack is broken down into a bag of plastic bits, mixed aluminum and copper, and a powder of lithium, cobalt and other reusable battery materials.

In an 880-lb a battery pack for example, Volkswagen says the plant can recover around 220 pounds of electrode minerals, including lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese. 

Volkswagen says its new plant will help it to become a pioneer in building a recyclable materials cycle with the potential to help reduce the need for mining of raw materials and improving raw material supply.

The Salzgitter plant can currently handle about 3,600 EV battery packs a year, but that number is expected to rise as Volkswagen works to improve the process.

The automaker expects to expand the system to handle the first wave of retired EV battery packs from vehicles over the next decade. This new recycling method will help Volkswagen to source the materials its needs for new EV batteries in a sustainable way using a closed-loop system, which will help support Volkswagen's transformation to an electric brand.

Last week, Volkswagen announced its updated "ACCELERATE" Strategy, which will prepare the automaker for a changing auto industry that's quickly moving towards electrification.

The company is aiming for 70% of its European models to be battery-powered by 2030. In the U.S. and China, Volkswagen plans for 50% of its vehicles to be fully-electric by 2030.

Volkswagen envisions the production of approximately 26 million fully-electric cars by 2030, so using recycled battery materials to build new EV batteries will become more of a priority.

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