One of the great success stories in recycling may lie under the hood of your car.
In the United States, 99 percent of all lead-acid automotive batteries are recycled, making them among one of the most-recycled goods you can buy. When your battery wears out, you can easily turn it in when buying a new one; that old battery can then be shredded or melted down, and its raw materials reused.
The new generation of electric vehicles will bring a massive increase in the number of batteries on the road – and already there are some concerns about how those advanced lithium-ion batteries will be recycled after their 10 or 15 years of use. Volkswagen plans to build one million electric vehicles a year by 2025, including at the Chattanooga plant and is already working on how to develop a robust second life for the batteries that will power them.
Why is recycling such a concern? Start with cost: Electric vehicle batteries are one of the most expensive parts on such cars, due to their complexity and the rare metals they require, like cobalt and manganese. As electric vehicles become more commonplace, digging those metals out of discarded batteries can be cheaper than digging ores from the Earth.
More importantly: Helping reduce the carbon impact of transportation – not just from the vehicles when they are driven, but over their entire lifespan, from raw material to junkyard – requires tight control over how batteries are recycled. To tackle the challenge, Volkswagen is working towards two approaches: Portable rechargers, and energy-efficient recycling.
Charging when you need it
An older lithium-ion battery that’s been on the road a decade or more may not be suitable for powering a vehicle, but it could still have a sizable energy capacity. (The battery pack in the 2019 Volkswagen e-Golf can store as much energy as the typical American household uses in a day, and then some.) And electric vehicles may need charging in many places where there may not be chargers or even power outlets available.
Those two problems have the same solution. Volkswagen Group plans to produce this portable quick-charging station. Designed to hold up to 360 kilowatt-hours of energy, the quick-charge station can charge up to four vehicles at a time, with a maximum quick-charge output of 100 kW. Like a portable cellphone charger, the Volkswagen Group charger can be used until it’s depleted or connected to a power source to keep itself recharged. And it’s small enough to be deployed in hard-to-charge locations, such as music festivals.
The charger has been designed to use the same battery packs as Volkswagen’s MEB electric vehicle chassis, so that when those packs reach the end of their useful life, they can have a second career as a recharge station. The first of these Volkswagen Group portable quick chargers is anticipated to be installed in Germany next year, and Volkswagen Group expects to begin full production in 2020.
At some point, all batteries lose the ability to hold energy. That’s where a new project at the Volkswagen Group’s component plant in Salzgitter comes into play.
Salzgitter is expected to be the home of Volkswagen’s first center for electric vehicle battery recycling. Next year, the center plans to have an initial capacity to recycle roughly 1,200 tons of EV batteries per year, equal to the batteries from about 3,000 vehicles.
Using a special shredder, the individual battery parts can be ground up, the liquid electrolyte can be cleaned off, and the components separated into “black powder.” This contains the valuable raw materials cobalt, lithium, manganese, and nickel – which, while requiring further physical separation, are then ready for reuse in new batteries.
In the long term, Volkswagen wants to recycle about 97 percent of all raw materials in the battery packs. Today, it’s roughly 53 percent, and the plant in Salzgitter expects to raise it further to about 72 percent. Volkswagen expects the plant in Salzgitter to be followed in the next few years by further decentralized recycling plants. Given how many electric vehicles Volkswagen plans to sell, handling recycling internally will be a priority for cost and environmental reasons — even though it will be at least a decade before the battery shredders have much to do.