Recycling EV batteries is the opportunity for Europe to significantly reduce its dependence on Asian battery and raw material suppliers. Significant steps are already being taken in various European countries around us. What role can industry in the Netherlands play in the processing of batteries?
In 2012, 130,000 electric cars were sold worldwide. Ten years later, that number is equivalent to a weekly score. According to the International Energy Agency, 6.6 million electric cars (fully electric or partially electric) were given a new owner in 2021, equivalent to a 9 percent market share. Although the forecasts for the further growth of electric driving differ, major car brands such as Volkswagen and Ford have significant growth plans: by 2030, half of all new cars must have a plug. Some European countries go even further in their ambition.
The increasing pressure on raw materials – including the geopolitical battle that this can lead to – is making the recycling of EV batteries increasingly important. In the bigger picture, this naturally also includes the ambition of ‘closing the loop’: a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. Norway – the European EV country par excellence – is currently making great strides in battery recycling. Hydrovolt, a joint venture between Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt and Norwegian energy and aluminum producer Norsk Hydro, can recycle 8,000 tons of battery modules per year. They will focus on discharge and reduction. The resulting black mass will be processed at other facilities, such as Northvolt in Sweden.
Battery processors are also working hard in Germany. Manufacturers are setting up their own pilot plants and you will find parties such as Duesenfeld, who use the so-called Duesenfeld method to achieve a material recovery percentage with lithium-ion batteries that is almost twice as high as with conventional recycling methods.
Battery recycling in the Netherlands
There is currently no battery processing operational in the Netherlands. Batteries from electric vehicles, which are not eligible for second use and must therefore be recycled, are therefore sent to European processors. There are, however, various parties that want to set up a recycling facility. It is important for ARN, partly from an efficiency point of view, that a processor is established in the Netherlands. That is why discussions are underway with all serious parties.
First Dutch recycling factory
The technology to recycle EV batteries is there, but a significant influx of discarded batteries is still lacking. Running a complete factory is therefore not yet profitable. The cost of battery recycling is expected to fall as recycling capacity grows. In the run-up to a steady supply, the first Dutch recycling facilities will initially run on production waste from battery manufacturers, supplemented with end-of-life batteries from electric cars; a trend that has been going on in Asia for some time. The various initiatives for European recycling facilities are often built close to battery production facilities.
Janet Kes, Battery Manager ARN said:
“Car manufacturers are preparing for the European Union’s ambition to keep raw materials within Europe and to ensure that the production of new batteries will partly take place using materials from old batteries. They do this, among other things, to have access to those scarce raw materials in the future.”
Hydrometallurgy: getting started with black mass
With current battery recycling technology, we can now recover more than 70 percent of the valuable raw materials present in the battery pack in Europe. This is expected to rise to 80 or even 90 percent in the future. This is already technically possible, but still dependent on economic factors. Within the conventional method of battery recycling – pyrometallurgy – there is still sufficient gain to be made, but much is also expected from hydrometallurgy. In pyrometallurgy, the batteries are heated in a controlled manner. For example, the organic material breaks down and solvents and plastics burn. Nickel, cobalt and other metals, such as copper, separate through distillation. The by-product, the slag, contains valuable raw materials such as lithium and manganese.
In hydrometallurgy, the first step is mechanical separation. After the battery has been shredded, ‘black mass’ is created on the one hand and metal material flows on the other. This black mass comes from the cathode and anode material. This is converted into a liquid solution in several steps, after which cobalt sulphate, metal salts and graphite are recovered. This is the so-called ‘chemical leaching process’. The materials extracted from this, including lithium, manganese, nickel and cobalt, are used to build a new battery, bringing a closed-loop closer. For example, Hydrovolt already has a material recycling efficiency of at least 80 percent, but it expects that this percentage can be increased even further.
Towards a higher percentage of material recycling
The German battery recycler, Duesenfeld, also mentioned earlier, sees a material recycling percentage of 91 percent as a feasible ambition. To achieve this, it combines a patented method that brings together mechanical, thermodynamic and hydrometallurgical processes. Duesenfeld also starts mechanically separating the batteries together with other parties, after which the shredder follows. The big advantage is that no high temperatures are required, as with the conventional pyrometallurgical method. This makes the process more energy-efficient. According to Duesenfeld, the only parts that it cannot recover will soon be the separator film and components of the electrolyte.
The role of the car manufacturer
As manufacturers, car manufacturers are responsible for the batteries they put on the market. The European Union is working on new regulations for the recycling of batteries from EVs. In the meantime, manufacturers are not sitting still: for example, Nissan reuses the Leaf batteries in automated factory vehicles, as does Volkswagen. However, the Germans go one step further and have now opened their own recycling plant in Salzgitter. When that facility is fully operational, it should be able to handle 3,600 battery packs on an annual basis; that equates to roughly ten packages per day. Renault is also currently taking back battery packs from its electric vehicles for further processing; a few hundred per year for now. For this, they work together with the French waste processor Veolia and the Belgian chemical company Solvay.
ARN closely monitors the developments surrounding batteries on the basis of its assignment. Due to the strategic importance of being able to continue producing electric vehicles in the future, car manufacturers are also paying a lot of attention to battery recycling.
Legislation and regulations
In the field of legislation and regulations, a lot is coming up in the coming years. Much is expected from the Battery Regulation, which is likely to come into force in 2023. There are also already well-defined plans regarding the mandatory use of recycled material in batteries.
Building knowledge about battery recycling in the Netherlands
The Eindhoven Brainport – a gathering place for various high-tech companies – is also known as the Dutch Silicon Valley. Within Brainport, the economic development company Brainport Development plays a major role. One of its ambitions is to invest in a national battery ecosystem. The aim: to organize the chain and to stimulate knowledge exchange between companies, knowledge institutions and other stakeholders. This allows the application of batteries to be accelerated and the development of a new generation of battery technology to be scaled up. Knowledge of innovative battery recycling could also fall within such a national battery ecosystem. ARN participates in various partnerships, such as the Battery Competence Center to join forces and build up knowledge.
The battery is developing
Battery recycling is developing rapidly, but the battery itself is also changing. The cobalt-free battery is on the rise. Such batteries are under development by Tesla, Panasonic and the Chinese SVOLT, a subsidiary of the car manufacturer and BMW partner Great Wall Motors. Furthermore, car manufacturers, universities and development centers are working on completely new battery technologies, from solid-state to magnesium-ion and from dual-carbon to lithium-air or even the supercapacitor. If one of these new battery types takes over, it could have major consequences on how we should recycle batteries.