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Electric cars: Battery recycling for increased sustainability

Manufacturing batteries for electric cars requires enormous amounts of energy and resources That’s why it’s important to recycle them. This is something that will be particularly relevant from the 2030s onwards. Swiss companies are looking to get involved, too.


  • Sustainability

Why is it so important to recycle electric car batteries?

With more and more people driving e-vehicles, there will be increasing numbers of electric cars in the future. When their useful life is over, they have to be scrapped. But what happens to their lithium-ion batteries? Since electromobility offers an opportunity for more sustainable transport, simply throwing them away is not a solution: after all, producing electric car batteries requires particularly large amounts of raw materials and energy. In addition, some of the raw materials required, such as cobalt, come from countries with dubious social standards. Last but not least, Europe is dependent on a small number of countries for a wide range of raw materials. The solution to all these problems is recycling: it conserves resources while at the same time reducing dependencies.

Electric car batteries have to be recycled on a large scale. A study  commissioned by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy and published in 2023 found that global production of lithium-ion batteries would increase by a factor of six to ten by 2030. It is said that the capacity required will then be in the order of several terawatt hours – or several billion kilowatt hours. And that’s per year! A production capacity of one terawatt hour allows some 15 million electric passenger cars to be equipped with batteries.

How long does an electric car battery last?

An electric car battery lasts at least eight years or 160,000 kilometres. Most manufacturers  of electric vehicles guarantee that their lithium-ion batteries still have a capacity of 70% at that point. With some providers, the warranty is even higher. How long an electric car battery ultimately lasts depends on numerous factors. These include:

  • driving style
  • typical outside temperatures
  • type of charging

Practical experience indicates that drive batteries are long-lasting and fairly reliable. Examples include the long-term tests conducted by ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club) on the BMW i3, the Nissan Leaf and the Renault Zoe. And in 2022, Renault published an account of its own experience gained with the lithium-ion batteries used in the Zoe E-Tech: 99% of all batteries used since the market launch in 2013 were still fully functional and had at least 70% of their initial capacity.

What is the second life of an electric car battery?

In their second life, used electric car batteries can be used as stationary buffer storage units in the power grid. This is relevant when a lithium-ion battery has aged to such an extent that there is an unacceptable reduction in the vehicle range.

Since a more sustainable supply of energy is required so as to protect the climate, the share of renewable energy is increasing. This is a development that can be observed worldwide . Wind and solar energy in particular have a key role to play here. But the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. For this reason, energy supply networks have to be able to temporarily store any sustainably generated electricity that is currently not needed.

Disused electric car batteries are the perfect option when it comes to setting up this type of stationary energy storage system. When used in this way, the batteries are far less exposed to stress and strain than is possible in a car. There are no load peaks as there are in a car when it accelerates, for instance. There are now quite a number  of such second-life storage units – in Switzerland, too. A lot of projects still lack longstanding experience. But it is emerging that the second life of a battery could last an entire decade. Of course it’s also possible to use this type of buffer storage system made up of second-life batteries not just directly as part of an energy supply network but also on a local basis – for factories, single-family homes with photovoltaic systems, or for charge stations.

What does the circuit of an electric car battery look like?

There is currently no sensible application scenario for lithium-ion batteries after their first life in an electric car and their second life in energy storage systems. The only remaining option is to recover the raw materials – something that batteries of this kind contain a lot of. They can then serve as a basis for the manufacture of new lithium-ion batteries. The aim is to achieve the highest possible recycling rates – something that makes both ecological and economic sense.

What raw materials does an electric car battery contain?

Every lithium-ion traction battery contains tens of kilograms of metals. The exact proportions depend on the cell chemistry used. They have changed over the years and will continue to do so, given the rapid advances in battery cell development. Swiss Energy quotes the following figures for a battery with a capacity of 60 kWh in the year 2020: 

  • Lithium: five to seven kilograms 
  • Cobalt: five to eleven kilograms 
  • Nickel: 28 to 39 kilograms 
  • Manganese: five to 16 kilograms 
  • Graphite: 45 to 53 kilograms
  • Aluminium: 30 to 35 kilograms 
  • Copper: 19 to 20 kilograms 
  • Steel: 19 to 20 kilograms 

This does not yet include the material of the battery housing. Some of the raw materials used are different in the case of different cell chemistry, such as lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries, which are becoming increasingly widespread.

How do you extract raw materials from lithium-ion batteries?

First, the batteries have to be dismantled into their component parts. There are various ways of recycling raw materials, and companies and research institutions are working to improve these methods, too. The recycling of an electric car battery essentially involves the following steps .

  • The battery has to be discharged for safety reasons.
  • Dismantling of the battery. It consists of a housing, electronics, a cooling circuit and the actual battery cells, which are then arranged in housings, potentially in groups.
  • Mechanical processes such as shredding, screening or sorting.
  • In the final step, the raw materials are extracted chemically or thermally. In the case of the chemical method, acids are used, for example. In the case of the thermal method, the residual mass is burned at high temperatures and the different melting points of the components are used to separate them.

<br/> Thermal recycling in particular is very energy-intensive, which is why alternatives are attracting great interest in the industry. Depending on the specific process used, it is now possible to achieve recycling rates of 30-90% .

Are lithium-ion car batteries recycled in Switzerland?

No. According to the Swiss Federal Office of Energy, recycling is currently not profitable. But given economies of scale, recycling costs could decrease as volumes increased. A recently published  study by the corporate consultants Strategy&, for example, concludes that battery recycling in the EU is likely to become profitable by 2035. So it’s not so much about being the first, but being ready on time.

The association of Swiss car importers, Auto-Schweiz, is getting prepared. The first step was to establish the Sestorec Cooperative. This includes members of Auto-Schweiz as well as importers and other car manufacturers. The aim is to create an industry solution for Switzerland. Around the world, the automotive and recycling industries are working on recycling concepts for electric car batteries which ensure that the cycle is as closed as possible. 

Numerous start-ups have sprung up, too. Projects of this nature  are often at an early stage. Recycling companies currently tend to process cells from waste generated during battery production. To a much lesser extent, batteries are recycled from vehicles involved in an accident or as part of warranty claims.

These are the Swiss companies that recycle batteries or are intending to do so:

Batrec, the specialist for hazardous industrial waste, has long been involved in the recycling of all types of batteries. As things stand, hardly any of the batteries used come from the fledgling market for electric cars.

Kyburz is best known for its three-wheeled postal delivery electric scooters. The company has established an energy-efficient recycling process  for their batteries, enabling recovery rates of over 90%. But the process is currently only suitable for lithium-iron-phosphate batteries made by Kyburz itself. Together with the Empa research institute and other project partners, the company is now looking to transfer its process to lithium-ion batteries.

Librec is a start-up that aims to start recycling lithium-ion batteries in 2024 – for Switzerland and neighbouring countries. Before a battery is recycled, the company systematically checks its suitability for second-life use.

What are the foreseeable developments in the area of recycling?

In addition to the key step of scaling business, there are other ways to ensure cost-effective recycling. For example, one major competitive advantage would be easier battery dismantling – in other words a process that could be automated . 

Modified cell chemistries would also have a positive effect because fewer materials would be involved. One example is the above-mentioned lithium iron phosphate batteries, which are free of cobalt, nickel and manganese. 

The recycling situation could dramatically improve if sodium ion batteries, were to be used: here, practical suitability for electromobility is currently being tested in practice. It still remains to be seen whether or not this is feasible. As things stand today, sodium ion batteries are not as powerful as lithium-ion batteries.

What is the legal situation regarding battery recycling?

The EU has recently revised its Battery Regulation . As a result, the recycling rate is no longer 50% but 90%, later to be increased to 95%. Every newly produced battery must contain a certain share of recycled raw materials. These include cobalt, nickel and lithium. The prescribed share increases specifically over time. For example, the share of recycled cobalt must be 6% by 2031 and 26% by 2036. 

In addition, from 2027 onwards there will be a mandatory battery passport , which will also include information on the composition and removal of the battery. In a consultation response last autumn, the association VCS Verkehrs-Club der Schweiz demanded that Switzerland bring its recycling into line with the EU directive. Legal framework conditions are needed in Switzerland to enable a circular economy to be established for batteries.

One important point in connection with all recycling activities is to avoidlong transport routes: after all, batteries are heavy – and would otherwise have an unnecessary impact on the environment at the end of their lifetime. So presumably specific recycling loops will at least be established for each region of the world.

Are among the most common e-models within the Mobility fleet: The Renault Zoé.

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