SALZGITTER, Germany—Volkswagen AG has opened a plant here that is dedicated to recycling electric car batteries. The goal of the recycling program is to recover valuable raw materials such as lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt in a closed loop together with aluminum, copper and plastic, achieving a recycling rate of more than 90 percent.
A unique feature of the plant is that it only recycles batteries that can no longer be used for other purposes. Before a battery is recycled, an analysis determines whether it is still powerful enough to be given a second life in mobile energy storage systems, such as a flexible rapid charging station or a mobile charging robot.
Because large volumes of battery returns are not expected until the end of this decade, the plant has been designed to initially recycle up to 3,600 battery packs per year during the pilot phase—the equivalent to more than 1,600 tons. In future, the system can be scaled up to handle larger quantities as the process is consistently optimized.
“The innovative recycling process does not require energy-intensive melting in a blast furnace,” says Mark Möller, head of technical development and e-mobility at Volkswagen. “The used battery systems are delivered, deep discharged and dismantled.
“The individual parts are ground into granules in a shredder and then dried,” explains Möller. “In addition to aluminum, copper and plastics, the process also yields valuable ‘black powder,’ which contains the important raw materials for batteries such as lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt, as well as graphite. The separation and processing of the individual substances by hydrometallurgical processes—using water and chemical agents—is subsequently carried out by specialized partners.
“As a consequence, essential components of old battery cells can be used to produce new cathode material,” claims Möller. “From research, we know that recycled battery raw materials are just as efficient as new ones.
“In the future, we intend to support our battery cell production with the material we recover,” adds Möller. “Given that the demand for batteries and the corresponding raw materials will increase drastically, we can put every gram of recycled material to good use.”