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.
“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.”
As EV batteries contain a complicated mix of materials, current battery recycling methods require essentially melting them down in a furnace, which only recovers about 60 percent of the materials inside. The process being developed in the Salzgitter plant uses several mechanical steps designed to recover up to 95 percent of a battery pack’s materials for reuse. 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.
The Salzgitter plant can currently handle about 3,600 battery packs a year. As Volkswagen gains more practice with the process, it expects to expand the system to handle the first wave of retired EV battery packs in the 2020s – supplying materials for new batteries in a sustainable, closed-loop system.