Volkswagen is ready to roll out a new family of electric vehicles (EVs), and by 2025 estimates that it will build one million EVs annually. Each one will have a large lithium-ion battery pack designed to last for up to 15 years. Once they’ve reached the end of their useful life in the EV, what will happen to these batteries?
The automaker has a plan to first re-use them as portable EV chargers, and then to recycle them.
Though one of these lithium-ion battery packs might no longer prove viable for an EV after a decade of service, it remains capable of holding a large amount of energy. Volkswagen sees these older batteries as a perfect power source for portable 360 kWh charging stations that it will deploy to areas without public chargers or standard electrical outlets. They’ll be analogous to portable cell phone chargers, or even porta-potties, providing a service where otherwise one does not exist.
Volkswagen Will Re-use EV Batteries, Then Recycle
Each of the portable chargers can juice up to four vehicles at a time. Production and deployment starts in 2020, first in Europe and then elsewhere. When these re-used batteries are no longer effective in the portable chargers, Volkswagen will send them to a new EV battery recycling facility.
Volkswagen’s lithium-ion EV battery packs contain rare earth metals including cobalt and manganese. More than half of the cobalt used in the world’s lithium-ion batteries, from smartphones to EVs, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa.
Reuters reports that “tens of thousands of children as young as six dig for the toxic substance in artisanal mines…without protective clothing.” Dust from mining activities contains cobalt and uranium, which could lead to long-term health consequences for miners and residents living near Congolese mines.
Not surprisingly, then, Volkswagen plans to recycle old EV batteries in order to extract these materials and re-use them in new batteries, in much the same way that the lead-acid 12-volt battery in your gasoline-fueled car is recycled and its materials re-used.
How Are Electric Car Batteries Recycled?
The automaker’s first EV battery recycling center will open in Salzgitter, Germany, in 2020. This is how Volkswagen will recycle electric car batteries:
- A special shredder will grind individual parts of the battery into tiny pieces
- VW will clean these pieces of liquid electrolyte
- A separation process will produce what VW refers to as “black powder,” which contains the valuable cobalt, manganese, lithium, and nickel
- These materials will go through their own separation process and will be ready for use in a new battery pack
Initially, the Salzgitter facility will be able to process old EV batteries from approximately 3,000 vehicles per year. At first, the recycling success rate will be 72%, according to Volkswagen. Ultimately, the goal is to recycle 97% of the raw materials in the battery packs.
After the launch of its new family of EVs, and before the requirement of battery recycling on a large scale, Volkswagen will open numerous recycling centers around the world. As a result, the company expects to keep battery building costs to a minimum while reducing the need for freshly mined materials.