Circular flows: Ten Rs for batteries – from refuse to recovery
By 2030, several million tonnes of used batteries from electric cars will need to be recycled. Battery expert Melina Hadjebi on the growth in this market:
Electromobility is currently seen as the most eco-friendly mobility solution for the future. Yet we are hearing some pretty negative things about the manufacture and recycling of batteries for electric cars. How can we fit these two things together?
The complex production process required to make batteries means that the initial development costs and the associated CO2 emissions are very high. And on top of this, batteries require the use of critical raw materials such as nickel, cobalt and lithium. Yet in comparison to combustion engines, the break-even point at which the vehicle becomes carbon neutral is reached quite soon after the electric car is put into use. If an electric car is powered 100% by electricity from renewable sources, then no further CO2 emissions are created during its period of use, in contrast to the situation with combustion engines. Emissions are only generated during the production of the battery (material, cell, system) – this is a problem that the companies in the value creation chain are well aware of and they are currently working to develop sustainable solutions in this area.
The battery can be used in the vehicle for a total of eight to ten years. Thanks to recycling, there are additional options that make battery-driven vehicles an alternative with good environmental credentials in the long run – for example, due to the fact that the sought-after raw materials used in the batteries can be retained within the local circular economy.
Across the world, the first 500,000 electric cars have now been licensed for use, whilst, in parallel to this, development work is still underway on the charging infrastructure and the circular economy. What is currently going on in the market?
There are three key areas of activity in the circular economy for batteries: manufacture, life cycle use and end of life. During manufacture, the initial focus is on optimising production by reducing waste and the number of rejects, as well as on cost reductions and alternative operating concepts such as the exchange or leasing of batteries (refuse, reduce, rethink). The second area is the lengthening of the product life cycle through maintenance and through the replacement of defective cells (reuse, repair, refurbish). Undamaged parts of a battery module can in theory be fitted into completely new batteries (remanufacture). Yet, if this is to be done, improvements will need to be made in terms of interoperability. In short, batteries will need to be easier to open, analyse and take apart. They can then be put to a new use (repurpose) – for example, for a stationary energy storage system.
Creating battery circularity - 10 Rs:
1. Smarter product manufacturing and application
2. Extended lifespan of products and parts
3. Useful application of materials
And the last area of activity?
Classical recycling - as the 9th R - at the end of the battery's life, meaning the processing of used batteries via one of the four possible recycling methods; mechanical, pyrometallurgical, hydrometallurgical or direct recycling. The last of the ten Rs, defined in umlaut's sustainability concept, is recovery. This includes, for example, the recovery of energy by discharging the batteries before they go into the shredder.
Who decides what will happen to a battery when it has completed its first life cycle?
On 11 March 2022, the EU finalised the Battery Directive that started its life back in 2020, for the negotiations with the various EU governments to begin. The Directive will ensure that batteries brought onto the market in the EU transport sector will be sustainable and safe for the whole of their life cycle. The basis for this is the 2006/66/CE Battery Directive which set out the rules for battery recycling. This new directive means that manufacturers of batteries – meaning producers who pass on the battery to the end user – are legally obliged to hand in every one of their batteries for recycling. This means that OEMs such as Daimler, Volkswagen and BMW will collect the storage devices at the end of their first life cycle and pass them on for collection and recycling, or subcontract the task to service providers.
Due to the lack of information, infrastructure and collaboration between the various different players along the value creation chain for batteries, the automotive industry would not currently be in a position to take back all the batteries that are now being fitted into electric vehicles. The first life cycle of a new battery is eight years or longer – time that can be invested in setting up recycling plants and circular systems.
How much interest is there in used batteries?
There is huge interest! The OEMs in particular are currently positioning themselves in this area. Because in their gigafactories, they will inevitably at some point hit upon a shortage of raw materials and on their dependency on suppliers in China, Chile and Australia. The current chip crisis and inflation in regard to material prices have shown where this could all lead. Batteries that are already in the target market can translate into hard cash. We need to secure the battery supply chain by closing the loop to form a circular system.
Which companies are currently positioning themselves in the growth market of battery recycling?
First and foremost, companies that are able to quickly help to set up recycling capacity. By the year 2030, we will need to be able to recycle several million tonnes of batteries – we are still a long way from this goal.
Are there other companies who are already positioning themselves to help?
Yes, there are companies being created that are investing in the so-called second life of batteries. These are above all companies from the energy sector that are finding ways of using batteries for a second time, for example as stationary energy storage units.
In addition to this, recycling companies, for example from the metalworking industry, are interested in reusing the materials obtained from batteries at the end of their life, and they are also interested in the product sleeves, which they can feed back into the first life circular system for money. In this market segment, joint ventures are being set up between battery manufacturers and recycling companies. In other industries, for example in aviation, in which high performance batteries with a shorter life will in future play a key role, there is not much movement currently. Things are different in the energy storage sector where stationary or modular systems are being used to store energy – there is still a lot of scope for development in this area with regard to bidirectional charging.
Are there any promising business models in other sectors that you have found interesting?
As well as the many sustainable concepts, I particularly like those that take a humanitarian approach. The first companies are now being set up to bring storage systems from remanufacturing into districts that are still today without a stable electricity supply. I am convinced that this could help to revitalise regions with weak infrastructure – opening up completely new areas of potential. Electricity means having access to technology, to digitalisation and to communication.