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Battery recycling in Salzgitter: these components of used batteries are extracted at the plant. © Volkswagen AG

Battery technology is critical to the success of electric vehicles (EVs). The Volkswagen Group is proving that the sustainability of EVs does not rest solely on green electricity, storage capacity and charging infrastructure. Following on from a research project initiated in 2009, the first pilot plant for recycling spent EV batteries has now gone into operation in Salzgitter. In the ID.3 and ID.4 electric car models, power is stored in lots of small battery cells and modules the size of shoeboxes. But what happens when a battery reaches the end of its useful life? Until now, spent batteries have mostly undergone pyrometallurgical recycling, i.e. high-temperature smelting. Now, the Volkswagen Group’s research and development team has found a different solution and made it ready for serial use with the help of Volkswagen Group Components. This innovative, sustainable process ensures that batteries are only recycled if they are definitely not suitable for any other use. Beforehand, checks are completed to see whether the modules could be used in mobile energy storage devices such as flexible rapid charging units or charging robots, thereby significantly extending their useful life.

If the battery is to be recycled, it is discharged and dismantled first. Raw materials such as its aluminium case, copper cables and plastic are recovered at this stage and returned to the production cycle. Then, the modules are reduced to small pieces in a protective atmosphere. The escaping liquid electrolytes are used to turn them into a damp mass of granules which are then dried and passed through various sieves and a magnetic strip, making them finer and finer. The end result is a black powder which contains substances such as valuable graphite plus lithium, manganese, cobalt and nickel. A partner firm then uses a hydrometallurgical process to separate this powder into its individual components, which can be utilised as secondary raw materials to make cathodes for new batteries with no loss of quality. “Our aim is to establish our own loop, reusing over 90% of our batteries,” says Thomas Tiedje, Head of Technical Planning at Volkswagen Components. The objective of this closed-loop approach to materials usage is to decrease the Group’s need for primary raw materials and reduce the batteries’ carbon footprint long-term.

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