ON THE NEED FOR SUSTAINABLE MANAGEMENT OF RESOURCES
Dr. Balke, what role does battery recycling play in the overall complex of EMobility?
Electromobility is an essential part of the energy transition in Germany and beyond. In addition to further development in manufacturing, recycling valuable resources and reducing the ecological footprint of e-mobiles are crucial to making a sustainable contribution to climate targets. All natural resources on our planet are finite. It is therefore one of our key tasks for the future to deal sustainably with materials and resources. This applies above all to electromobility: Here we urgently need to significantly increase the service life of batteries and improve battery recycling.
What is the current state of technology in this area?
There are currently two general process routes for recycling lithium batteries. The pyrometallurgical approach, i.e. melting the batteries, is robust and safe. However, the achievable recycling rate is limited, especially with respect to certain elements and compounds. The mechanical approach promises potentially higher recycling rates, but is subject to higher safety risks. Moreover, material separation in the shredding process - usually "shredding" - is only moderately selective. Currently, there are still relatively small quantities of electric vehicle batteries that need to be recycled. As these volumes increase dramatically, questions arise about the upscaling advantages and disadvantages with respect to established processes, as well as those under development. Pyrometallurgical routes in particular suffer from high capital costs. And if full recyclability is to be achieved, alternative processes are urgently needed - rather than trying to recycle only the most economically valuable components. Here, the combination of mechanical and hydrometallurgical recycling has a clear advantage.
Which innovations are on the verge of a breakthrough?
IWKS is currently developing a hydromechanical process whose core features potentially high material selectivity in the comminution steps. The use of water in the majority of the process ensures high safety. This process also has the advantage, among others, that it is relatively easy to separate the different fractions, such as polymers, metals and black mass, from each other and also to achieve a high purity of the fractions - compared to conventional processes. As a result, the subsequent recycling steps are significantly more time- and energy-efficient and thus, of course, also more economical. However, proof of upscaling capability is still lacking here. In several joint projects with strong national and international partners, we will provide this proof over the next three years.
What are the main obstacles to battery recycling? And what can be optimized from a regulatory point of view in your view?
The biggest obstacles lie first in the industrial upscaling of technologies, but also in the logistics of safely transporting batteries to the recycling facility. A major role is played by the collection of car batteries at the end of their first life. Especially the last aspect needs to be regulated by the federal government and the EU so that it becomes mandatory to recycle the batteries. I would even go one step further and say that these materials must be demonstrably recycled. To make the circular economy as efficient and effective as possible, it is absolutely necessary to introduce a mandatory EU-wide "battery passport". This will enable any authorized person to quickly and clearly identify what type of cell it is. Ideally, the ingredients can also be traced back to the mine.
A team of researchers led by Volkswagen is currently working on traction batteries - and plans to recycle batteries several times for the first time in the near future. A look inside the VW pilot plant: Before the still moist granulate can be processed further, it has to be dried. © Volkswagen AG
What ecological potential do you attribute to battery recycling?
The mobility shift toward electric drives is naturally causing an enormous increase in the demand for traction batteries. In order to meet this demand and ensure sustainable use of the materials, some of which are based on critical raw materials, in the long term, profitable and complete recovery is crucial. In addition to a significant reduction in the effective greenhouse gas emissions of electric vehicles, in which not only the use phase but also the production and raw material extraction must be taken into account, the recycling of lithium-ion batteries enables a reduction in global economic supply dependency on strategically important raw materials and results in a significant competitive advantage due to improved external presentation to the end customer. Currently, battery production is the main driver in terms of CO2 release in electromobility, thereby jeopardizing the environmental benefits of this technology. Therefore, the use of sustainable materials and the expansion of the recycling of lithium-ion batteries are of great importance to improve the CO2 balance of vehicles with electric drives.
How high is the potential recycling contribution?
Compared with the primary production of cathode materials, up to 90% of CO2 can be saved. Compared with current metallurgical processing methods, the potential saving is 20 to 30 %. In addition, the technologies developed enable increased resource efficiency by recycling the cathode materials. Only small quantities of the so-called lithium precursors and, if necessary, nickel, cobalt and manganese compounds need to be added. In this way, material requirements can also be reduced by up to 80 % compared with primary production.
To what extent can recycling-friendly design, "design for recycling," be a promising approach for a sustainable battery industry?
I think it is very important and valuable. In a BMBF project with our colleagues from the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology, we are also further developing the approach of deriving design concepts directly from simulation results on battery architecture and the associated process technology. The aim is to optimize the process parameters and chains in order to qualify the properties of the black mass recyclate for use in a recyclate battery. The designs or re-designs of the battery cells are based on real material and exergy losses as well as energy and material flows. Based on such simulations, a concept for recycling-optimized design at the cell level with reference to the application is created.
What could a complete recycling infrastructure ideally look like?
The complete solution has many facets and is very complex. In any case, it would be important to place a battery recycling plant directly next to each battery factory. This would allow the "production scrap" to be recycled and made available for production again at relatively low cost. For end-of-life batteries, simple and rapid diagnostics are then needed to assess whether a "second life" is economically or ecologically worthwhile - or whether the battery cell should be sent for recycling. Before you can think about recycling, you first have to take care of discharging and safe, fast and robust dismantling down to cell level. To this end, we at IWKS are developing automated and flexible dismantling and recycling processes for all components from electric vehicles in our Center for Dismantling and Recycling of E-Mobility, or ZDR-EMIL for short. In cooperation with regional industry, we can thus achieve a high level of recycling efficiency under the aspects of economic efficiency, resilience and sustainability.
How should Germany best position itself as a business location here?
There should no longer just be political declarations of intent in which recycling is mentioned as important and crucial for the energy turnaround. What will be important for success is how we act - and not what we say.
Thank you very much for the interesting interview.
Dr. habil. Benjamin Balke-Grünewald
© Fraunhofer IWKS
has been working at Fraunhofer IWKS since 2018 and has been head of the Energy Materials department there since April 2020. After completing his dissertation in 2007, the graduate chemist and mathematician worked for several years on various international research projects, including for Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, UC Berkeley in the USA, and the University of Stuttgart. With numerous research projects and publications, Balke is now a renowned expert in the fields of battery recycling, materials research, recycling and resource strategy, among others.