Today, battery recycling is still considered a sideshow to the more immediate challenges of electromobility such as increasing battery capacity and reducing production costs. However, with the required number of lithium-ion batteries multiplying in the next few years – estimates say that by 2030 there will be about 4.5 billion Li-ion batteries used by electric vehicles – recycling will become a key strategy not only for disposing of spent batteries but also for sourcing valuable base materials.
Tackling environmental costs
It is the latter aspect that will also counter one of the key arguments against electric vehicles: Li-ion batteries are made from rare elements such as cobalt, nickel, and lithium that are currently extracted in only a handful of locations. Moreover, extraction and processing of these metals present potential environmental and health hazards and account for a large share of the environmental impact of Li-ion batteries.
Historically, it has been considerably cheaper to mine the rare elements than to source them through recycling due to the cost, complexity, and low yield of the (mainly manual) recycling processes. Recent developments, however, have demonstrated that by introducing modern technologies and automation into Li-ion recycling, it is possible to both significantly increase the yield and reduce the energy consumed in the recycling process, turning recycling into not only an environmentally friendly practice but also a cost-efficient alternative to mining and extraction. Tackling the supply chain
Tackling the supply chain
Recycling also offers strategic benefits for manufacturers, as recycling reuses materials that are readily available, ensuring a higher degree of independence from volatile markets. Moreover, materials sourced from recycled batteries sometimes have an even higher quality than the original raw materials, as they have already been refined, so they need less preprocessing. And finally, recycling will give rise to new business models, such as the trading of recycled raw materials in the exchange market or the development of downcycling concepts for physical reuse of aged batteries in other applications (e.g., as energy storage systems).
All these efforts will help improve the supply of raw materials to keep up with the rising demand for Li-ion batteries without putting an extra burden on natural resources.
Tackling the process
Despite all these benefits, the reason for the current low recycling rates can be found at the process level: battery packs must be analyzed; discharged; and disassembled into modules, separated electronic components, and battery cells before the valuable materials can be removed from the casings for recycling. Plus, battery recycling is a potentially hazardous process, so safety concerns must be considered.
Typically, the recycling process can use four basic methods – others are currently under development:
- Mechanical separation (shredding and sorting)
- Pyrometallurgic (thermal) separation
- Electrohydraulic fragmentation
- Hydrometallurgy (wet extraction)
Combining these processes will generally yield the best results.
A contribution to a “greener” Li-ion value chain
There is simply no way we can satisfy the growing demand for Li-ion batteries in an economically and ecologically sustainable way without recycling – and this is why in Germany, automakers, system suppliers, and integrators as well as research institutes have joined forces to develop efficient, automated solutions for battery recycling, from disassembly to sorting and shredding to extraction and separation.
Siemens is playing an integral role in this joint effort because many of the solutions currently under development require advanced process control, software solutions, and safety systems as well as powerful tools to develop recycling-friendly battery designs. We consider it an honor to be able to contribute to these efforts.
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