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regular-article-logo Saturday, 13 July 2024

European Union bets on battery recycling to secure greener future and to cut China reliance

The EU sees its dependence on imported raw materials for car batteries as a major weakness in its transition to a greener future. It's betting on battery recycling to help change that

Deutsche Welle Published 17.02.24, 03:15 PM
The EU is betting on battery recycling to help cut its dependence on imported raw materials. A German firm could help.

The EU is betting on battery recycling to help cut its dependence on imported raw materials. A German firm could help. Deutsche Welle

A glass jar filled with fine-grained black powder that slides along the walls of the jar, shining asfactory lights fall on it as I roll the jar in my hand.

The label on the jar says "black mass," which sounds kind of cool, even mysterious. The powder inside contains valuable battery metals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt sourced from shredded EV batteries. The black mass could be key to the EU's electric vehicle ambitions and help it catch up with China, the world leader in electric vehicle battery manufacturing and recycling.

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I am at an EV battery recycling plant run by Duesenfeld in northern Germany's Wendeburg, just outside Hanover. Wendeburg is a quiet town with many typical German half-timbered houses with front gardens, surrounded by forests and fields.

It's here in this small German town that Duesenfeld is researching how to make EV battery recycling profitable.

The European Union, which is betting big on electric vehicles to combat climate change, is planning to build dozens of massive EV battery plants, so-called gigafactories, over the next decade. However, the bloc is almost entirely dependent on imports for the key raw materials that go into making batteries, leaving it highly vulnerable to supply-chain shocks. Recycling could not only help the EU reduce its reliance on imported materials but also make the batteries more environmentally friendly.

The 27-nation bloc is even setting up mandatory minimum levels of recycled metals in new EV batteries.

Many companies in Europe, including carmakers such as Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz and Swedish battery maker Northvolt, are investing in battery recycling as part of efforts to make it economically viable.

Mercedes-Benz is currently building a pilot plant for EV battery recycling in Kuppenheim, in southwestern Germany, which is expected to be operational by mid-2024.

Jörg Burzer, a member of the board of Mercedes-Benz Group, told DW that he sees the recycling process as a "mine of tomorrow."

"Having the resources available, having a sustainable process — that's all a strategic component for us," he said.

The catch is that the process is still too expensive for many companies. Burzer couldn't say when exactly their recycling process would pay off.

Duesenfeld, however, claimed that its recycling process is already profitable. Julius Schumacher, Duesenfeld's head of plant engineering, demonstrated how.

An employee in a black overall stands in the middle of blue and red cables. The discharge area is separated by yellow and black barrier tape. EV batteries are dangerous due to their high energy density.

The worker connects one cable after another to deeply discharge the briefcase-sized batteries.

"That leftover electricity covers about half of the factory's energy costs," said Schumacher, a big advantage given the high costs of disassembling batteries.

Another employee pushes the discharged batteries onto a production line leading up to a shredder. Shredding is usually the tricky part. EV batteries are highly flammable, which makes them difficult to recycle.

Most recyclers use one of two methods: The materials are either separated using a thermal treatment, which is energy-intensive, or the batteries are shredded in, for instance, a vacuum or liquid nitrogen, which can produce toxic gases.

Both methods have their downsides.

Duesenfeld uses the latter: Shredding in a nitrogen atmosphere to prevent the batteries from igniting.

Then, the batteries are dried at low temperatures in a vacuum. It's essentially the same effect as on a high mountain: Water boils at a temperature below 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) because the external pressure is lower.

The batteries' electrolyte, which works as a conductor inside the battery, evaporates and is contained. Schumacher pointed down to a glass pipe with a transparent liquid, the recycled electrolyte, flowing through it.

However, this method could still produce toxic gases. So, what's the difference?

Schumacher said Duesenfeld shreds the batteries at extremely low temperatures, "and we deep discharge the batteries before shredding them. The combination of these two elements means that no toxic gases can be produced."

He said the company's recycling process is carbon neutral, raising his voice to drown out the machines, "Reducing CO2 emissions also means reducing production costs."

Duesenfeld won the German Sustainability Award for 2024, which honors pioneers of sustainability in the German economy.

In front of us is a large moving sieve, the size of a dining table, separating the different materials from the shredded batteries: copper, aluminum, plastic and the precious black mass that contains the valuable battery metals.

The black mass is then put through a chemical process called hydrometallurgy to separate lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt.

Schumacher hands me a small glass jar filled with something resembling icing sugar. It's recycled lithium, a precious metal the EU needs to meet its EV goals.

China is the world's biggest EV producer and market. It's also a leader in battery recycling.

China's EV battery recycling market is about 10 times larger than the EU's, Christoph Neef, a scientist at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research in Germany, told DW.

China, a major producer and processor of key battery raw materials like lithium and graphite, could replace lithium obtained by mining with recycled lithium in EV batteries from 2059 onward, according to a study by the University of Münster in Germany.

By comparison, Europe and the US are expected to reach that milestone only after 2070. As far as nickel is concerned, China can probably meet demand through recycling in 2046 at the earliest, with Europe following in 2058 and the US from 2064 onward.

Researchers at Fraunhofer Institute say Europe's experience in industrializing innovative technologies could help make it a major player in green and efficient battery recycling. The research institute expects the amount of batteries to be recycled in Europe to reach 2,100 kilotons annually in 2040, up from currently about 50 kilotons of spent batteries that are recycled annually, as a large number of automotive batteries reach their end of life.

Sweden's Northvolt, which produced its first EV battery cell with 100% recycled nickel, manganese and cobalt in 2021, plans to increase its capacities in Europe and is targeting approximately 70,000 tons of battery packs by 2025 and 300,000 tons of battery packs by 2030.

"The EU started early with activities to control and scale the recycling process," Neef said. "Therefore, the EU can definitely catch up in recycling."

It's not yet clear which recycling method will prevail, but the Fraunhofer Institute study ranks the method like the one used at the Duesenfeld plant — a mechanical process combined with hydrometallurgy — as the most promising so far.

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