The share of electric cars in the overall market is likely to increase rapidly in the coming years. But one central problem has not yet been solved: Where to put the batteries?
Munich - The production of electric cars requires huge amounts of valuable raw materials for the batteries of electric vehicles to be functional. This poses problems from two points of view: On the one hand, the shortage of raw materials continues to increase, which also leads to geopolitical tensions. On the other hand, discarded batteries threaten a huge amount of electronic waste, which could have devastating consequences for the environment and climate on earth.
Industry and business, as well as politicians, are therefore called upon to take appropriate countermeasures - and not to sit out the threat. After all, the more electric cars there are on the roads, the more energy storage in the form of lithium-ion batteries are needed - and these inevitably lose their suitability at some point. Currently, there is still no process suitable for series production with regard to battery recycling, according to the German Press Agency (dpa).
Battery recycling for electric cars: Where to put hundreds of thousands of batteries?
The Berlin-based Öko-Institut estimates the amount of battery produced annually by electric cars at 100,000 tonnes per year. In ten years, this would mean around one million tonnes of environmentally hazardous battery scrap. The service life of electric car batteries depends on several factors.
What are car companies doing to overcome the hurdle of recycling and sustainability? Volkswagen is testing a new process in Salzgitter and is aiming for annual recycling capacities of 1500 tonnes at the site. Premium rival Mercedes has been building a factory in Baden-Württemberg (Kuppenheim) with a targeted capacity of 2500 tonnes with the company Primobius since March.
In addition to the recycling of the e-car components, another point is important: a possible second life of the accumulator as a stationary electricity storage device. BMW has been practicing this method for years on the premises of its production facility in Leipzig.
Electric cars: What complicates the recovery of raw materials in batteries
Recycling companies outside the automotive industry are also ramping up capacities in the field of e-car batteries. "At the moment, the batteries are anything but recycling-friendly," criticizes physicist Kai Peter Birke, who conducts research on this topic at the University of Stuttgart and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation.
According to the scientist, there are still problems disassembling battery cells into individual parts because, for example, cell connections are firmly welded. According to him, the fact that the structure of the cells varies depending on the manufacturer and that the lack of standardization on the part of politicians prevents disassembly suitable for series production is also problematic. According to Birke, it is a huge challenge to change this and to optimize or standardize the processes.
Electric powertrain: Battery recycling poses a huge challenge for the industry. © MIS/Imago
Recycling of e-car batteries: Previous processes also have disadvantages
Another important point is the recovery of the raw materials used in the energy storage systems. There are two different processes that industry and business focus on: pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical processes. The former means the melting down of the existing substances, the latter involves the dissolution through the use of chemicals in an aqueous solution.
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According to experts, the latter method is more efficient, and the energy requirement is lower than smelting, according to environmental expert Jürgen Sutter of the Oeko-Institut. However, there is a disadvantage: the organic solvents for the detachment must not be released into the environment, because otherwise there is a risk of damage to the ecosystem.
According to Sutter, copper, aluminum, nickel, cobalt and, under certain circumstances, lithium are the raw materials that can be recovered from electric car batteries. However, it would still take some time before high recycling rates become realistic. For mass production, they are currently estimated at around 50 percent. In a new EU battery regulation, the topic of recycling rates of batteries is also to play an important role. Minimum quotas are provided for certain materials, which may not be undercut.
Are politicians sleeping through stricter rules on battery recycling?
What puts additional pressure on the manufacturers of electric cars: the legal obligation to take back batteries. However, Deutsche Umwelthilfe sees a need to catch up in terms of political regulation. The DUH points out that "critical raw materials" are needed on an ever-increasing scale due to increasing digitalization, the expansion of renewable energies and the transport transition. That is why it is imperative to "align the law more strongly than previously envisaged with the efficient use of resources".
According to the environmental association, the aspects of durability, repairability and reuse should be in the foreground. "The DUH calls on all EU parliamentarians and also the German Minister of Economic Affairs Robert Habeck to stand up for this," reads an appeal to political decision-makers.
In addition, batteries are by far the most expensive component of an electric car. With a special passport, the EU wants to create more transparency with regard to batteries. (PF)