The future of the automotive industry is to look for alternatives to car batteries once their useful life is over
In the fight for the decarbonisation of the automotive industry, the electric vehicle is taking advantage. Its market stands at 2.9 million at the European level and around
150,000 units in Spain, which represents around 0.4% of the fleet in our country. The set goal is to reach 250,000 in two years and 5 million in 2030, despite the delay compared to the rest of Europe and with the numerous doubts still existing among potential users and buyers.
Issues such as the autonomy of electric cars are beginning to cease to be a problem, since many of them are already capable of exceeding 600 kilometers without the need to recharge. Likewise, recharging times are increasingly reduced, and although slowly, Spain increasingly has more public recharging points, or at least projects for their installation. But another of the great doubts is if electric cars are really as ecological as they seem to be, since due to the manufacturing processes and the components of the batteries themselves, the true heart of these cars, the need arises to recycle them once which ends its useful life. Hence
the formula of the three “Rs”, reuse, remanufacture and recycle, is outlined as necessary to minimize the environmental impact of batteries.
In this regard, Spain “puts the batteries” in order to inaugurate the first electric vehicle battery recycling plant in the Iberian Peninsula at the end of 2023. It will be installed in Cubillos del Sil (León) and it is an initiative of Endesa, in alliance with Urbaser, which has an investment of 13 million euros.
The new battery recycling plant is one of the seven projects recently approved by the Ministry of Ecological Transition, together with the Junta de Castilla y León, the municipalities of Ponferrada and Cubillos del Sil, the University of León and Endesa. The new joint venture will manage the collection of electric batteries in Spain and Portugal, their safe temporary storage and their transport to Cubillos del Sil, for their subsequent treatment. In these Cubillos del Sil facilities, part of the batteries will be adapted for reuse. The remaining ones will be electrically discharged, disassembled and
subjected to a process of separation and crushing that will allow the recycling of the materials with which they are manufactured, such as plastics, aluminum and copper, as well as the «black-mass» or «black powder».
How to recycle a battery
When it comes to recycling a battery there are three possibilities. Depending on its condition and the capacity it retains, a high-voltage battery can be reused in a vehicle in whole or in part, receive a second life as a stationary or mobile energy storage system, or it can proceed to the recovery of the materials used in their manufacture for the production of new battery cells, as explained
Frank Blome, Head of Battery Cells and Systems at Volkswagen Group Components
In the first case, remanufacturing, if the battery is in good or very good condition, can be reprocessed for later use as a spare part for electric vehicles, always after undergoing repair work that reflects its value. current on the market ”, clarifies Blome. In the second option, a battery is suitable to be used as a “second life” battery when it has a medium to good condition, which will allow its continued use outside of an electric vehicle for years. This could be in a flexible fast charging station, a mobile charging robot, a driverless transport system or a forklift, as well as an emergency backup energy or home storage system.
The third option involves a
efficient recycling, where mechanical processes disassemble only batteries already at the end of their useful life to recover materials such as aluminum, copper, plastics and “black powder”. The latter contains valuable components such as lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt and graphite, which are separated by specialized partners using hydrometallurgical means, before being processed again into a cathode material.
A battery is made up of groups of cells connected in series, like a swarm of mini-batteries, that work together to store the energy needed to move the vehicle. With lithium-ion technology, the cell structure is always similar, regardless of whether it is a mobile phone or an electric car battery. There are always two sheets of metal, such as copper and aluminum. Between the metal sheets are the two poles with the cathode and the anode, between which the electrical reaction takes place. A reactive metal such as lithium is required for the reaction. The biggest cost factor is the composition of the cathode, that is, the positive pole of the battery. It is made up of a mixture of nickel, manganese, and cobalt. The anode is made of graphite powder, lithium, electrolytes, and a separator.
Andreas HintennachHead of Battery Cell Research at Daimler, says “Silicon will largely replace graphite powder in the future. This will allow us to increase the energy density of the batteries by approximately 20-25%. ‘
One of the current strategies is to replace cobalt with other less critical materials, and in this sense Daimler’s research is advancing. “We are investigating this as with the current generation of battery cells we have already been able to reduce the proportion of cobalt in the active material (nickel, manganese, cobalt and lithium) from around a third to less than 20%.” Another alternative is the lithium / sulfur battery. Sulfur is an industrial waste product with almost no cost, very pure and can be easily recycled. It presents significant challenges with regards to energy density, but it also has an unmatched eco-balance. However, it may take years for this technology to become available for passenger cars.
Hintennach explains that there are other types of alternatives to current batteries, and even
there are technologies that are superior to the lithium-ion battery. Among them is the solid state battery. However, “its energy density is lower, which makes it relatively large and slow to charge. That is why it is good for commercial vehicles, but not for passenger cars. That is why the lithium-ion battery will be with us for years to come. ”
Another possibility is the lithium-sulfur battery. In this case replacing nickel and cobalt in current batteries with sulfur would significantly increase sustainability. The energy density also has a lot of potential, but the service life is not long enough yet. “In lithium-air batteries, there is really only lithium,” he says. The rest, oxygen, simply comes from the air. “Chemically it is a concept similar to that of the fuel cell, where we are using hydrogen. The energy density would be outstanding, but this technology is still a long way from becoming a reality.
A sustainable and profitable alternative to old factories and power plants
By U. Mezcua
Battery recycling also opens up new business avenues for companies and environmentally sustainable alternatives for their old polluting facilities. An example is the Endesa project together with Urbaser in the León town of Cubillos del Sil, which will compensate for the dismantling of the old Compostilla II coal plant. The plant will come into operation at the end of 2023 and could generate around 50 new direct jobs, and an as yet undetermined number of indirect jobs, after an investment of 13 million euros, supported by European recovery funds.
Its promoters advance that the new recycling plant will have a capacity to treat 8,000 tons per year, thus satisfying the recycling demand foreseen for Spain and Portugal. The plant will enter into operation at the end of 2023. However, it is planned to start the logistics activity in advance, so the collection, transport and storage of the batteries will be carried out in advance to guarantee the necessary volume that, in due course, will allow uproot the plant.
Renault and Volkswagen
Recycling is an opportunity for Spanish companies, such as the Pontevedra Little Electric, which in January received the backing of the European Commission to establish a battery recycling center and create 35 jobs. “There is a strong component of innovation because the technology does not yet exist, you have to invent it and evolve from there,” according to its manager, Rubén Blanco.
Also automobile manufacturers have detected an interesting business avenue in the recycling and reuse of batteries. Renault, for example, expects to generate more than a billion euros in 2030 thanks to the scrapping of vehicles and the recycling of parts, batteries included. The French industrial group is in the process of adapting its Flins factory, in what it calls Re-Factory, and has created a new business line, Renault Environment. The group aims to achieve carbon neutrality in Europe by 2040, and worldwide by 2050
Similarly, Volkswagen opened its first electric car battery recycling plant at the beginning of the year, located in Salzgitter (Germany), a city with a steel and industrial tradition. The facility intends to recycle about 3,600 batteries per year during the pilot phase, the equivalent of about 1,500 tons. The manufacturer, which will invest 35 billion euros in electromobility in the next five years, hopes to be able to recycle up to 90 percent of the components of its vehicle batteries, reusing valuable raw materials such as lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt, along with aluminum, copper, and plastics.