Battery recycling: Why the electric car has a second life

Batteries must be properly recycled so that the electric car is environmentally friendly. But there are still some problems to be solved.

The vehicle battery consists of a large number of battery cells. They fill almost the entire vehicle floor area between the axles. – (photo by Volkswagen)

E-mobility is likely to really pick up speed in Germany next year. With the rapidly increasing number of electric vehicles, the question of how to dispose of the drive batteries will become increasingly important. However, there is still time to come up with solutions on a large scale.


But even after that, according to ADAC research, there should be no massive disposal problem, provided that contemporary regulatory frameworks are created, new recycling processes are used and the automakers decide on recycling-friendly battery designs.

Decades may pass before battery recycling on a large scale becomes necessary. The first big wave of used batteries may not be rolling towards us in almost 20 years. Lithium-ion batteries have a long life expectancy.

A lot depends on the use in the vehicle and also on the original capacity. In any case, the number of charging cycles gradually decreases. After 1,500 to 2,500 charges, the energy content of a battery should still be between 70 and 80 percent compared to the original capacity.

If you take average values ​​here, i.e. 2,000 charging cycles and 75 percent capacity, a VW E-Up of the new generation could still have a range potential of almost 200 kilometers after a life cycle with intensive use. The vehicle would then have run between 300,000 and 400,000 kilometers. In any case, a high mileage for a car life that only ends after 10 years or much later.

At the potential end of the vehicle’s life cycle, however, the battery is by no means a case for the shredder. The batteries can be used for a long time. Removed from the vehicle, they can be used as stationary storage, for example. As reported by the ADAC , laboratory measurements have shown that this function has a useful life of 10 to 12 years.

Batteries can be used for a long time

A good example of secondary use is shown by a huge storage facility at the BMW plant in Leipzig, where the i3 is built, among other things. In addition to wind power, BMW has also installed solar systems, the electricity of which is used for vehicle production. It is important for the optimal utilization of such regenerative electricity generators that the CO2-neutral energy is temporarily stored in order to be able to use it as optimally as possible. To this end, BMW has bundled 700 old and new batteries from the i3 so that wind and solar power can be buffered.


There are other examples in Germany to be able to compensate for fluctuations and demand peaks in power grids with such storage batteries. In the port of Hamburg, among other things, there is a two-megawatt storage system made of i3 batteries. But second-life batteries do not necessarily have to be used in large systems.

Use for private households is also conceivable. A capacity of 20 kWh offers more than sufficient buffer for a family home. For example, the battery in the E-Up is almost twice as large. For a long double life of car batteries, however, appropriate formal framework conditions are still required. In its research, the automobile club points out that rules still have to be created in Germany that take into account liability issues and waste disposal responsibility for second-life uses.

Sooner or later, a lithium-ion battery will irretrievably counteract its final end, which then poses the problem of a resource-saving and environmentally friendly disposal.

In the opinion of the ADAC, the Battery Act of 2009 provides an inadequate basis for modern recycling. This only requires recycling of 50 percent of the material content based on their weight. Accordingly, this requirement could already be achieved by removing the housing and components, which usually consist of aluminum, steel and plastic.

In the recycling process, however, it has to be about getting valuable and critical raw materials such as lithium and cobalt. The automobile club therefore calls for a revision of the EU guidelines from 2006, which, like the German Battery Act, could not yet take into account the large drive batteries of electric cars at the time of their creation. The goal must be to be able to recover more than 90 percent of the raw materials.

For this purpose, German automakers and the Federal Ministry of Economics are planning to set up pilot plants that will optimize long-term recycling quotas at a high 90 percent level. In the long term, industry wants to create capacities that go beyond the potential of pilot plants. Multi-stage processes are to be used, which not only sort and shred, but also enable melting and material separation.

However, this multi-stage approach is currently still energy-intensive and expensive. Economically viable recycling processes therefore still have to be developed. There is also a need for research on environmentally friendly disposal or landfilling of residues, because without them, even the most advanced recycling methods will probably not work in the end.

Contact the author: georgeperez@wheelsjoint.com


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