German battery recycling project awarded $1 million in public funding

Electric vehicle battery pack. (Image by Norsk Elbilforening, Wikimedia Commons).

The Ministry of Economic Affairs, Labor and Housing of the German state of Baden-Württemberg has announced it will finance a two-year project aimed at investigating how to best reclaim battery electrodes.

The $1-million project, called RecycleMat, is led by the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW). Its ultimate goal is to prevent bottlenecks in the supply chains of cobalt, lithium and natural graphite and to mitigate price risks. 

“Future demand for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and for short-term storage of green electricity will surely be enormous,” Margret Wohlfahrt-Mehrens, who heads up Accumulators Materials Research at ZSW, said in a media statement. “The development of a recycling concept to recover as much raw material from spent batteries as possible can be decisive to the sustainable supply of these resources and could considerably reduce the amount of material and energy required for new cells.”

Up till now, the prevailing method to recycle batteries doesn’t allow the recovery of cobalt, nickel and copper, which are lost to the high temperatures that produce slag

According to Wohlfahrt-Mehrens, the team working at RecycleMat is investigating how to best extract lithium, nickel, cobalt and natural graphite from spent batteries and recondition the electrode material for direct reuse in new lithium-ion batteries or as an intermediate product for battery material synthesis. To this end, they aim to mechanically separate components from end-of-life batteries or from waste produced when manufacturing cells and then purify these components before subjecting the active materials to thermochemical aftertreatment. All this is to be done in an energy-sparing way.

The scientists expect the material and process data obtained with this method to provide a robust foundation for resynthesizing materials. Their plan is to validate their processes and resulting products with industry partners.

Up till now, the prevailing method to recycle batteries is to melt down the entire battery or cells and then treat the melted residue and slag with complex processes. Recycling companies have adopted these processes for commercial purposes, but valuable metals such as cobalt, nickel and copper are still lost to the high temperatures that produce slag. These processes are also unable to recover components such as lithium, manganese and aluminum. 

Alternative methods involving several high-temperature processes or combinations of hydrometallurgical and thermal processes can recover but a relatively small amount of recyclable resources.

“High-quality recycling is a key skill for the industrial hub of Baden-Württemberg,” Wohlfahrt-Mehrens said. “In the future, sustainable and competitive value chains will have to include the optimum recycling of products at the end of their useful life. When it comes to recycling batteries, we are taking an important step in the right direction with the RecycleMat project.”

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