E-mobility is enjoying a boom around the globe. The demand for electrically-powered vehicles is increasing in the light of sustainable developments and the need to reduce traffic in big cities. According to the German Federal Motor Transport Authority, the number of newly registered electric cars tripled in Germany in 2020. If we include other alternative drive systems like plug-in hybrids, gas or hydrogen power, the proportion of new registrations in this field has actually risen to one quarter. There are now 70 electric vehicle models from German manufacturers alone on the market.
While the obstacles to purchasing electric vehicles involved factors like their price and the charging infrastructure in the past, these issues have now been resolved. There are now about 40,000 publicly accessible charging points in Germany (as of March 2021). Alongside this, up to 70 per cent of garages and permanent parking spaces for owners of electric vehicles are equipped with private charging points. The costs for electric cars have also been falling for years. According to analyses, price parity between electric and conventional cars will soon be reached; electric cars are set to be produced more cheaply than those with combustion engines by 2027.
Increases in the operating ranges of electrically-powered vehicles from 300 to 500 kilometres will also increase their everyday suitability and acceptance. As a result, electric drive systems will become increasingly interesting for logistics and commercial road transport operations (Logistics People Community has already reported on this). If we view the ‘total cost of ownership’, which not only includes the purchasing and usage costs, but also the costs for fuel/electricity, maintenance and repairs, taxes and insurance, some current electric vehicle models are already cheaper or barely more expensive than conventional cars.
The lithium-ion battery systems (LIBs) are one of the most important and most expensive components in electric vehicles. As they partly consist of metals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite, the LIBs currently account for about 30 per cent of the overall costs of the vehicle. At the moment, a new lithium-ion battery costs about EUR 116 per kWh, although the figure was still EUR 132 in 2019. Further price reductions are forecast for the next few years.
However, in addition to their price and operating range, the sustainable production of LIBs is playing an increasingly important role, too. While there may be delivery bottlenecks because of the locations of the raw materials, most of which are situated in Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Australia, the USA and China, battery production is to be in very close proximity to the market (the automobile manufacturers and final customers) in future. As a result, manufacturers of battery cells are increasingly announcing the expansion of battery cell production capacity in Europe, including Hungary, Poland, Scandinavia and Germany.
This has major benefits: sustainably produced electricity can already be used in Europe to manufacture the battery systems and this further reduces the CO2 footprint of the LIBs. Europe can also cover the manufacturers’ need for qualified personnel. However, there is a great deal to consider when it comes to producing and storing the LIBs.
‘The correct storage and assembly of the battery systems should take place very close to where they are inserted in the electric vehicles because of the huge weights and dimensions involved. Many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are therefore opting for suppliers and automobile logistics partners which handle the pre-assembly work and storage at their own business sites. The storage areas at the production sites can then be used for other purposes.’
Any storage of LIBs must also take place in line with special requirements and standards, such as the Water Protection and Fire Protection Acts. The just-in-time and just-in-sequence deliveries to the production site can then be made from the warehouse.
After about 1,000 charging cycles – which have been reached after about 10 years or 150,000 kilometres of travel – the performance of a typical lithium-ion battery is no longer adequate for powering a vehicle. However, this does not mean that the battery can no longer be used because it still retains about 50 – 70 per cent of its energy output. These batteries can start their next life in second application systems, e.g. as storage media for wind and solar energy, to stabilise the electricity grid, as a source of emergency electricity supplies or even for charging electric cars.
But why bother to go to all this effort? In addition to the sustainability aspect – after all, batteries should not end up at rubbish tips with their hazardous materials – lithium-ion batteries were responsible for about 60 per cent of the metal cobalt that was produced around the world in 2020. In addition to lithium, manganese and nickel, cobalt is one of the rare metals that are used to manufacture a number of technical devices – ranging from smartphones and camera batteries to electric cars and even catalytic converters. Not only are the materials themselves valuable, it is also expensive to mine them and it is difficult to dispose of them in an environmentally-friendly manner.
The number of electric vehicle batteries is set to increase from 55,000 at the moment to 3.4 million by 2025. In contrast, with new batteries, companies are not only able to reduce their CO2 footprint, but also costs by using second-hand batteries. The demand on the part of electricity suppliers to use LIBs as intermediate storage points is already increasing. The LIBs can store any excess electricity, particularly in the field of renewable energy, and this can then be fed into the grid again in a targeted fashion.
‘As a recycling company, we’ve therefore already been working with the automobile logistics service providers from the outset and are drawing up joint concepts for maintaining, testing, reusing and then recycling battery systems,’ says Dr Ansgar Fendel. However, he points out that before batteries can be used in their second life, checks need to be made to see whether they are suitable for this because second-life batteries have a higher failure rate and a shorter life cycle. Any further use of LIBs depends on the size and type of the battery and its state, and the technical processing effort required. The application market also determines whether an LIB obtains a second service life or not.
Current business models so far primarily envisage the use of one single battery type for each project as the models can be significantly different in their form and function. ‘In order to continue simplifying any second usage of the systems, standardisation of the battery systems should be performed, so that assembly and disassembly become less expensive and the degree of automation in the process can be further increased,’ adds Lukas Brandl, Head of Battery Recycling at TSR Recycling, a company which specialises in recycling raw materials.
Producers of battery cells and automobile manufacturers are obliged to handle the collection, treatment and recycling of all the accumulated batteries in the European Union. There are similar regulations in China, too, and in individual states in the USA.
The first challenge in recycling batteries involves storage. ‘Used lithium-ion batteries must be stored in UN-certified containers, which now need to be filled with additional fire-retardant material, in an enclosed storage area with a separate fire compartment. The downside of LIBs is, unfortunately, that any faulty batteries represent a considerable safety and fire risk. Our employees perform the dismantling work and therefore initially check the batteries for any faults. If it’s not possible to continue using the battery, we hand it over to a recycling company,’ Dr Marcus Ewig explains.
Lukas Brandl adds, ‘We dismantle the LIBs down to a module level, then perform deep discharging and work to achieve greater added value with other recycling partners. As a result, we guarantee the best possible recovery of the raw materials and make a crucial contribution to closing the material cycles.’
The main value assets not only include cobalt and nickel, but also copper, iron/steel and aluminium. Recycling facilities, such as the world’s largest for LIB recycling, can handle up to 7,000 tonnes per year. Copper, aluminium and plastic are directly obtained from dismantling the LIB modules. The cells are then stripped down, as a result of which the so-called black mass is extracted and cobalt, nickel and manganese are recovered from this. Lithium can be recovered in a subsequent process by a lithium processing company, although this procedure currently represents a great deal of work and is a major cost factor. The casing and electronics are handled in separate processes. According to the Fraunhofer Institute ISI, the earnings from dismantling are estimated to be EUR 210 – 240 per tonne of batteries, where aluminium accounts for half of this figure and steel and copper each for one quarter. The actual cell recycling is more complex and the Fraunhofer Institute ISI cannot yet provide any cost data for this.
‘The goal is to recycle as many elements from a battery as possible so that they can be used to construct new batteries and thus protect resources,’ says Christian Kürpick, Project Manager for RETRON at REMONDIS. Although recycling LIBs is still a costly and time-consuming business, the market, politicians and society are constantly providing new impetus here and promoting the development of new methods.
If, according to the Fraunhofer Institute ISI, high collection rates and recovery of 25 to 30 per cent of the lithium from old batteries could be guaranteed for LIBs, this could cover between 10 and 30 per cent of the annual need for production by 2050. Automobile manufacturers could include the cash value of the battery in its second life in the purchase price, which would continue to reduce the price of the vehicles and promote greater use of electric cars. One thing is certain: logistics and the disposal business are already on board and are preparing the way for all-round, sustainable battery life cycle management.
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