One of the things that perhaps hasn’t got the attention in deserves in the drive toward vehicle electrification is “what do you do with the lithium-ion batteries at the end of their lives?”
Today’s lead-acid vehicle batteries are currently almost 100% recycled (with all components reused, shredded or melted down), making them one of the most recycled goods you can buy (not just automotive goods). However, the increase in electrification means more batteries, except they aren’t lead-acid. They’re lithium-ion.
Lasting about 10-15 years (depending on charging cycles), EV-batteries are one of the most expensive parts on the vehicles due to their complexity and usage of rare metals such as cobalt and manganese, meaning that for sustainability, you want to reuse them as often as possible (rather than digging more ores out of the Earth).
To attain that end, and also to help reduce the carbon footprint of a vehicle over its lifespan, Volkswagen is working on two initiatives — portable rechargers and energy-efficient recycling. The two actually work together.
A lithium-ion battery that has ceased to be effective in powering an EV still has a sizable energy capacity (usually the equivalent of what the average home uses in a day). So, when the battery packs used in an e-Golf, for example, outlive their ability to hold enough energy to handle everyday driving requirements, they can be taken out of the vehicle and put into Volkswagen portable charging stations (designed to use the same batteries as Volkswagen EVs) where they can charge up four EVS using a quick-charge. And the quick chargers can also be recharged when they are depleted.
And when they eventually run out of the ability to hold energy, as all batteries do, they will be taken to a the component plant in Salzgitter, where a new project plans to annually recycle roughly 1,100 tonnes of EV batteries (roughly the equivalent of 3,000 vehicles), though it will be a decade or longer before the plant has much to do.
Obviously, that won’t be enough capacity to handle the flux of EVs expected on the world’s roads, so Volkswagen also has plans for other recycling plants.
Similar to the recycling of lead-acid batteries, the EV batteries are ground up, the liquid electrolyte is cleaned off, and the components are separated into the “black powder” that contains cobalt, lithium, manganese and nickel, which then have to undergo further physical separation before being reused in new batteries.
The company is currently able to recycle about 53% or raw materials in EV battery packs, but the Salzgitter facility expects to raise that to 72%. Volkswagen hopes to take that up to 97% (although it doesn’t have a timeframe).