Hot on the heels of electric vehicles dominating the airwaves, many have been expressing concerns over how to recycle automotive li-ion batteries. For the first time ever, Volkswagen recently unveiled their battery recycling facility. Now you too can take a look at how the German automaker makes use of discarded batteries and removes all doubts about the environmental impact of their battery recycling operations.
In an eight-minute video, Volkswagen goes into painstaking detail about its battery recycling operations. In a nutshell, here’s the synopsis: shred the batteries, separate various metals and plastics using magnets and filters, and extract the precious metals from the resultant substance. More details below.
The battery recycling facility in question is located in Salzgitter, Germany and belongs to Volkswagen Group Components. Operations at the facility began in January 2021, with a forecasted 15 million tons of li-ion battery systems processed each year.
▲ Li-ion batteries contain massive amounts of precious metals. The more of the battery that can be recycled, the cheaper it is to make new batteries out of the recycled materials.
The first step to processing discarded batteries is to weigh them and bring them to full charge. The latter step is especially crucial, since the batteries in question have to first have their health confirmed. Should they be usable still, they would then be fit for energy storage purposes or put to use somewhere else for use cases with low power requirements.
Current recycling technology can retrieve 70% of raw materials from a recycled battery pack. While this figure can be raised to 90% in the future, it still represents a huge waste, since we’re talking about such valuable materials as those contained in li-ion batteries here. That is why the guys from VW go to great lengths to ensure that the batteries to be recycled are truly out of commission before proceeding with the disassembly and recycling.
Once the battery has passed inspection, the next step is to discharge its leftover electricity as a safety precaution. This is a relatively old-fashioned process which involves manual labor on the workers’ part and automatic disassembly on the robotic arms’ part. After all detachable parts on the battery’s exterior have been removed, then the leftover parts can be further disassembled. During the above step, the exterior aluminum frames, copper wires, and most plastic components are removed and repurposed into new materials.
After deconstruction, the previously gigantic battery pack is then divided into smaller chunks of battery modules, placed on a conveyor belt and fed into a metal shredding machine, through which the modules are placed under tremendous pressure and cut up. Afterwards, the electrolytic solution and precious metals contained in the battery cell become mixed up in a pool of debris.
▲ Through a multi-step procedure, the remnants of the recycled batteries end up in three bags: (from left to right) plastic, aluminum/copper, and black powder.
The resultant debris then undergoes multiple passes of air-drying, filtering, and magnetic separation, ultimately becoming a black, powdered substance, which contains precious metals such as copper, magnesium, cobalt, and nickel – the extraction of which is a top priority in battery recycling.
With the proliferation of EVs comes a proliferation of li-ion batteries. So much so, that about 100,000 tons of li-ion batteries were estimated to have been retired last year, and this number is expected to reach upwards of 780 million tons per year by 2040. That is why battery recycling technology has become increasingly important, since it not only saves enormous material costs for battery manufacturers, but also reduces the impact on the environment from discarded batteries, rendering it perfectly line with the crux of sustainable manufacturing.