Robots install batteries in vehicle bodies.

Automated installation of batteries in car bodies

| p. palej
2024-04-01 VDE dialog

Storage technologies: Long live the battery!

The recycling and reuse of batteries is essential for a future circular economy. The corresponding industry is poised to implement corresponding projects, but these endeavors are technically challenging – and how they might succeed remains an open question.

By Markus Strehlitz

Batteries play an important role in both the mobility and energy transitions. Besides being a fundamental component of electric vehicles, they are used for purposes like stabilizing power grids and storing surplus electricity from renewable energy sources.

They are also a precious commodity, as they contain valuable raw materials that could become scarce in the coming years. Meanwhile, their extraction is often associated with environmental and social challenges. It therefore follows that batteries should be used for as long as possible, reused as often as possible and then recycled to reclaim as many raw materials as possible.

This is precisely what the EU’s recently adopted Battery Regulation aims to achieve. Among other things, it sets minimum requirements for durability and performance, as well as specifications for the collection and recycling of batteries. DKE is involved in the corresponding standardization process. It has received a standardization mandate from the EU on the topics of durability, performance and service life. This also includes the processes for preparing batteries for reuse and remanufacturing. The first standards should be ready by December 2025.

The regulation also sets new requirements for the recycling rates of raw materials. Starting in 2028, 90 percent of cobalt, copper and nickel and 50 percent of lithium will need to be recovered from batteries. In 2032, these proportions will rise to 95 percent and 80 percent, respectively.

There are also specifications regarding the proportion of recycled material that must be used in new batteries.

The recycling targets are ambitious – but for the most part realistic, says Johannes Betz, a senior researcher and expert on battery recycling at the Oeko-Institut: “Nickel, cobalt and copper have been successfully recovered for many years.”

The situation is different with lithium, where the process is more complicated. “Lithium is relatively reactive,” says Betz, who goes on to explain that existing processes have to be adapted accordingly or completely new ones developed. He says “every recycler” is currently working on this.

High safety requirements + small quantities = expensive logistics

Batteries contain toxic substances such as cobalt-nickel salts. Those that also include lithium pose a potential fire hazard if they are not handled carefully. Recycling processes are therefore subject to stringent safety requirements and these complicate logistics, among other things.

For transportation, batteries are divided into categories for which different safety concepts apply. A battery with external damage, for example, would be assigned to safety level red. The protection concepts include the energy storage systems being transported in special containers or in certain cases they are not allowed to be stacked. The requirements are so high and, at the same time, the quantities currently being produced are still so small that it may happen “that a truck drives around with a single EV battery”, as Betz explains. “And that makes logistics very inefficient and expensive.”

The founders of the start-up Voltfang

The start-up Voltfang uses storage units made from EV batteries to store electricity in bakeries and supermarkets, for example.

| Voltfang

One solution would be to first pre-treat the batteries in smaller centers with short travel distances before transporting them to the actual recycling plant. A possible method for this would be to treat the batteries mechanically, for example by shredding them, in order to obtain a so-called black mass that can be transported safely. Betz assumes that with the expected ramp-up of battery recycling, these and other processes will continue to develop.

Recycling, reuse, second life: just don’t throw them in the bin

E-mobility in particular will ensure that more batteries need to be recycled or reused. From 2030, the Oeko-Institut expects “a significant increase in secondary raw material potential for important key raw materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper”. This is the conclusion of a report by the institute on the demand for strategic raw materials for the car and truck sector in Germany up to 2040. The report goes on to say that tapping into this potential could make a significant contribution to making Europe more independent in terms of key supplies of these raw materials in the medium and long term. At the same time, the authors of the report emphasize that an increasing number of companies with different processes are now active at various stages of the recycling chain and are investing in the expansion of necessary processing and recycling capacities. The entire industry is therefore in the starting blocks.

Those involved in the reuse of batteries are also waiting for the ramp-up of e-mobility and a growing market. Here, the aim is to recondition used batteries so that they can be reused in another application. For example, one very promising prospect is the use of traction batteries from electric vehicles as stationary power storage units. They can be used in private homes, but also in the commercial sector.

Car manufacturer Toyota, for example, recycles used nickel-metal hydride batteries from hybrid vehicles for use as stationary batteries. Together with a technology partner, Toyota has also developed an entire storage system made from used batteries. It has an output of one megawatt and a capacity of three megawatt hours, and is used in Japanese wind farms.


Presentation of the automated dismantling of an EV battery

Presentation of some of the results of the DeMoBat project at Fraunhofer IPA. Left: Automated disassembly of an e-car battery at Fraunhofer IPA. Right: a small parts gripper.

| l: © Fraunhofer IPA, r: © Fraunhofer IPA/Foto: Rainer Bez

And it’s not only large companies that are operating in this field – small start-ups are also getting in on the action. The start-up Voltfang, for example, offers stationary second-life batteries for industrial and commercial companies. Its customers include hotels and corporate groups with many branches, such as Aldi. They use the reconditioned batteries for peak load capping, self-consumption optimization or emergency power operation.

Voltfang uses batteries with a residual capacity of over 80 percent for its products. They are dismantled, tested at module level and qualitatively assessed. According to Roman Alberti, co-founder of Voltfang, one of the challenges right from the start was diagnosis. When a battery is delivered, only its age and the mileage of the car are known. The start-up therefore developed its own test procedure to precisely analyze the aging process of the battery.

This is a problem that others also have and which the battery passport is intended to help solve. The passport, which is part of the European Battery Regulation, contains information for each battery on its recyclability, repairability and CO2 footprint, among other things – over the entire life cycle of the battery.

In general, testing procedures for re-use and remanufacturing are still a challenge, as Kerstin Sann-Ferro, Standardization Manager at DKE, points out. The procedures specified in the standards for the production of batteries are based on so-called type tests. This means that one or two batteries are taken from a series and tested. These samples are then considered as representatives of the entire series. And some of these procedures are destructive. “The question now arises: how do you deal with used batteries?” says Sann-Ferro. In this case, every battery would have to be tested, as a single battery cannot be representative of others. After all, there is no series as there is in the production of batteries. However, it is not possible to rely entirely on non-destructive methods. “There are important test procedures that require the battery to be destroyed, including some safety-related tests.”

The battery design currently in use is not circular economy-friendly

DKE also deals with standards for the production of batteries – for example, in a joint working group with the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) under the leadership of the DIN. The focus here is on how batteries are developed so that they can be reused and recycled more easily later on. At present, the standard battery design still stands in the way of this.

This applies, for example, to assembly – in other words, when cells are joined together to form modules. If this is done by screwing them together, the batteries are easier to take apart later. However, the modules are often glued together. Incorporating such aspects into a standard that can then be implemented is difficult, says Sann-Ferro, adding that the purpose of some bonding is to reduce the risk of fire or to extend the shelf life. “It is therefore not always possible to choose the best option for recycling,” Sann-Ferro continued.

Tilmann Vahle believes that Design for Circularity will be difficult to achieve in the battery sector in the coming years. He is Director of Sustainable Mobility and Batteries at the consultancy firm Systemiq. He also founded the project consortium The Battery Pass to drive forward the development of such a system. “The design of a product doesn’t just happen,” says Vahle. “It’s always about making it safe, functional and profitable.”

In this context, there is frequent discussion about reducing the large number of different battery variants in order to simplify remanufacturing and reuse. However, such regulations could slow down innovation. And innovations are often decisive competitive factors. “It will only be realistic to discuss design for circularity in a few years’ time, when the pace of innovation in batteries slows down,” says Vahle.

Nevertheless, research is being carried out to simplify the reuse and recycling of batteries. For instance, in the DeMoBat project, which is coordinated by the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation and funded by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of the Environment, twelve industrial partners worked on concepts and technologies to simplify and automate the industrial dismantling of batteries and electric motors. Among other things, the experts conceived a recyclable design and built a prototype of a battery suitable for dismantling. Other results include special robotic tools and a system where a battery can be dismantled non-destructively down to cell level. An important component of this system is a safety concept in which the temperature is used as a possible indicator of a chain reaction, if a battery catches fire.

The industry is therefore equipping itself to deal sensibly and responsibly with energy storage systems and the used raw materials in the future.

Markus Strehlitz is a freelance journalist and editor for VDE dialog.

Little extra effort, revolutionary benefits! Tilmann Vahle, Director Sustainable Mobility and Battery, Systemiq and founder of the consortium “The Battery Pass” explains how the battery pass is advancing the circular economy.

VDE dialog - the technology magazine

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Das Projekt The Battery Pass unter der Leitung des Unternehmens Systemiq will beim Aufbau des EU-Batteriepasses unterstützen. Tilmann Vahle, der bei Systemiq für die Themen nachhaltige Automobilwirtschaft und Batterien zuständig ist, erklärt, welchen Wert der Pass für die Kreislaufwirtschaft hat und warum die Herausforderungen überwindbar sind.

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