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Electric car batteries: Recycling or second life?

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The average service life of an electric car battery is between 8 and 10 years or between 1,000 and 1,500 charging cycles. At a range of 300 kilometers per charge, for example, this results in a service life of 450,000 kilometers. When its capacity is exhausted by the numerous charging and discharging cycles, the electric car battery is recycled. In this process, important raw materials such as lithium, copper or cobalt are recovered. At the same time, hazardous substances must be separated and collected. Find out which methods are used here.

Does recycling an electric car battery cost anything?

Usually, there are no costs for vehicle owners to replace and recycle the electric car battery. Many manufacturers offer their customers an 8 to 10 year warranty. If the traction battery shows a defect or an exceptional loss of capacity during this period, the manufacturer shall replace it free of charge. The details can be found in the manufacturer’s specifications. However, there are also situations in which the warranty does not apply. It’s worth taking out separate battery insurance for these cases. With AXA, you can take out a separate policy for your electric car battery in addition to your car insurance.

There is also the option of battery rental. Depending on the manufacturer, model and yearly mileage, a monthly battery rental of CHF 60 to 120 applies. In this case, the leasing agency assumes responsibility for replacing and recycling the electric car battery. 

Car manufacturers offer repair of electric car battery

Many car manufacturers offer a repair of the energy storage system based on the current present value. But in this case, the entire electric car battery is not replaced. Advanced measurement methods are used to identify the cell modules responsible for the loss of capacity and then replace them with new cell units. These new modules are adjusted to the voltage level of the other battery modules before installation. 

How are electric car batteries recycled?

Incorrectly disposed of lithium-ion batteries pose a threat to our environment. Storage, disposal or recycling must only be carried out by trained personnel.

There are currently three official processes for recycling an electric car battery, the highest recovery rate of which is 96 percent. Two other processes with a higher recovery rate of up to 98 percent and lower environmental impacts are still at the research stage as of April 2024. The aim of the recycling process is to achieve the highest possible recovery rate (ideally 100 percent in the future) of the recyclable materials contained. The recovery includes both valuable and environmentally harmful substances. We have summarized below a brief overview of the recycled materials of an electric car battery.

Valuable substances:

  • Lithium
  • Manganese
  • Cobalt
  • Nickel
  • Graphite

Environmentally harmful substances:

  • Solvents, such as 1,2-dimethoxyethane
  • Mercury
  • Cadmium
  • Lead

In addition to the chemical components, the recycling process also involves the recovery of metals and plastics from the battery housing, the used connection technologies, the cables and the electronic components.

Important raw materials from the battery housing are:

  • Copper
  • Aluminum
  • Steel
  • Electrolyte
  • Plastics

Recycling companies around the world are working hard to recover a significant proportion of these materials and prepare them for reuse. They currently rely on these three methods: 

  • Shredding under nitrogen
  • Thermal melting
  • Electrohydraulic shredding

Shredding under nitrogen

With this type of recycling of an electric car battery, around 96 percent of all components are recycled. For this purpose, the battery is first placed under nitrogen and then mechanically crushed to extract all important raw materials.

Thermal melting

In this recycling process, the battery cells are melted down using a targeted temperature increase and then ground up. As a result, valuable materials such as copper, nickel and cobalt can be extracted and approximately 95 percent recovered. There is, however, a major drawback to this procedure. Because it is not possible to recover all the components, aluminum, lithium and graphite are unfortunately lost in the process.

Electrohydraulic shredding

The process focuses on recovering reusable materials in the form of intact battery components. In this process, worn out battery cells are treated in a liquid that is permeated by electric shock waves, leading to their decomposition. Subsequently, the individual parts, such as the electrode foils and the active materials, are separated in further steps. A key advantage of this method is that the chemically active materials can be used directly for the production of new batteries.

Two more environmentally friendly processes still in research

In the future, there will be even more environmentally friendly methods for recycling an electric car battery, such as flash joule heating, which is currently being researched by Rice University in Houston. The battery is heated to over 1,800 degrees Celsius within a few seconds. This results in a black, sticky mass (also called black mass), whereby the raw materials can be dissolved with the help of inorganic acids. According to the researchers, the recovery rate is 98 percent.

Researchers at Chalmer University in Sweden are hoping for similar promising results. Instead of inorganic acids, they rely on plant-based oxalic acid. This not only benefits our environment, but also the recovery of almost all raw materials. It is still unclear how long universities will carry out research on these methods before they are used. 

Electric car battery Use in private households

In a private household, a 20 kWh electric car battery stores more energy than a normal household requires as a reserve in its second life within the home energy system.

Second life before recycling

In practice, it has been shown that after 1,000 to 1,500 charging cycles, the battery is no longer powerful enough to power the engine of an electric car. Nevertheless, even after ten years of operation, it still has enough capacity for stationary use, for example as a power storage for the electricity generated from solar cells.

In this way, the service life of an electric car battery is extended by an average of another 10 to 12 years before it goes into professional recycling. This means: With normal use, the battery lasts for more than 20 years. This is due to the fact that during stationary use, the battery for the electric vehicle is not exposed to energy draining acceleration and braking phases. Stationary operation is much more even. The result: A slower discharge, which has a positive effect on the life of the battery.

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