The auto industry's big push into electric vehicles will lead to a big problem down the road: What to do with all those lithium ion batteries once they've lost their oomph?
It's the central question behind a pilot recycling project that Volkswagen Group plans to launch at a factory in Salzgitter, Germany, about 30 miles from its global headquarters in Wolfsburg. Beginning in 2020, the plant will accept about 1,200 tons of used automotive lithium ion battery packs a year — the equivalent of what's in about 3,000 EVs today.
The battery packs will be analyzed and sorted; those with some life left will be given a second use, such as mobile vehicle charging stations similar to the way a power pack can be used to recharge a cellphone. Batteries that are spent will be shredded and ground to a fine powder, Volkswagen says, so their valuable and rare raw materials — including lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel — can be extracted and sorted for use in new battery packs.
Volkswagen believes that, within 10 years, it will be able to recycle up to 97 percent of all the raw materials used in the battery packs driving its upcoming EVs. It expects the pilot project to help it reach 72 percent, up from 53 percent today.
Thomas Tiedje, Volkswagen's head of technical planning, said the automaker has spent 10 years researching how best to recapture the valuable minerals used to make modern batteries.
"We already have sustainable battery expertise in the Group and are developing this further," Tiedje said in a statement.
While the pilot plant is ramping up in Germany, the company has not determined plans for battery recycling in North America after it begins selling EVs here this year with the Audi e-tron and in 2020 with the Volkswagen I.D. Crozz. "We are in regular contact with our colleagues in [North America] about recycling," a spokesman said.
Today's lithium ion battery packs have an estimated useful first life of about 150,000 miles, or roughly 10 years, given average driving cycles. In Europe and in China, automakers are required to pursue end-of-life strategies for their products, especially those containing materials that are hazardous to the environment. In the U.S., however, similar recycling research efforts are in their infancy, though the nation's largest EV maker, Tesla, last year said it is working toward a closed-loop battery recycling process at its Gigafactory battery-production locations.
Just in February, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a three-year, $15 million effort to industrialize the recycling of lithium ion EV batteries. The ReCell Center, at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, will coordinate research with automakers, material and battery suppliers, and several universities with the aim of using recycled materials to drive down the cost of EV batteries by 10 to 30 percent, to a goal of $80 per kilowatt-hour.