Will millions of batteries end up in landfills?

Asking questions about recycling electric car batteries is legitimate and right. Here are the challenges, opportunities and how the industry is moving

Giuseppe Croce


– Milano

What’s up? batteries from electric cars What are all the car manufacturers selling today? Will EV batteries end up in landfills and cause enormous damage to the environment? Car brands will really be able, as they say today, to take on the enormous burden of recycling of batteries? These are the questions that everyone is asking when it comes to electrification and when looking at the car market for the next ten, twenty, thirty years. More than legitimate questions that everyone should ask themselves, not just those who do not believe in electric cars or those who simply can not stand them because their heart is still beating with four, six or eight cylinders. However, the answers can not be limited to simple statements of intent, because the batteries in electric and electrified cars are very complex, and yes, if not managed properly, they can represent a huge environmental problem. But they are also so expensive, they even represent a third or more of the total price of the car, and that is precisely the reason why no car manufacturers today intend to end up in landfill: an EV battery is a real one gold minewhich the big cars are already taking advantage of.

the thousand lives of the batteries ev

Batteries for electric cars, we said, are complex, and like all complex things, they can break or have problems. Except that problems, even the smallest, are not tolerated at allautomotive industry who for decades has set it security in the center and is subject to very strict rules. Today we are used to taking the car to a dealer or an authorized workshop to have it serviced and, if there are any problems or parts that need to be replaced, you will have to wait for repair or replacement before returning it. However, the car hardly moves fromworkshop: all work to check, repair and possibly replace the defective component takes place there. With electric cars it is not that simple, or at least it is not yet: some processes can only be performed by specialized technicians, or with special equipment. Replacing an electronic card on the battery can be done in the workshop, for example: it’s like when the computer breaks down and the technician removes the broken table to put in the new one. Identical speech for a cable or for many others battery parts which can be repaired on site.

defective batteries, what to do?

But if any battery cell does not work, then battery pack it must be opened and partially disassembled to replace the cells with problems. An operation that, of course, can not be done everywhere. The electric car’s battery pack is then separated from the electric car and transported safely to a repair center that can handle the task. Today, this center is almost always the factory because there is none yet critical mass batteries to be repaired, which justifies the opening of intermediate centers. Once the cells have been replaced and the necessary tests have been performed, the battery is back in perfect condition and ready for a new life. Which is almost always identical to the first: The accumulator is often still absolute suitable to be used on an electric car. Another electric car, of the same model or another with the same battery configuration. Other times, however, the battery is no longer suitable for car use. In short: after numerous charging and discharging cycles, especially of fast charging at high power, its ability to supply energy to electric motor it is no longer sufficient to guarantee the performance required by the car. At this point, the real thing begins second life of the EV battery: non-car use. If the battery performance is no longer sufficient to push the car from zero to a hundred in seconds, or to ensure safe overtaking, it will certainly be for many other purposes. The first and most popular today isaccumulation of energy: the previous batteries of electric cars become new batteries storage of electricity, which supplies emergency power in the event of a blackout to large civilian, commercial or industrial buildings. In a world where the whole economy is becoming more and more electrified, where radiators are leaving more and more space for heat pump air conditioners and even kitchen stoves no longer use gas, “storage“of electricity takes one strategic role: stabilizes the power grid because it becomes a reserve of electricity ready for immediate use, just when needed, and absorbs peak load. Identical speech, but on a very small scale, too domestic accumulators that more and more people are combining with photovoltaic systems mounted on the roof of the house: the cells that previously made up the battery in an EV are more than good for batteries of a few kilowatts (usually 7 or 15 kW, smaller than the accumulator on a car plug in hybrid modern), which the installer comes to install at home.

electric batteries, the other life

That batteries for storage they are less complex and refined than those for electric cars, but they are still expensive. It therefore comes as no surprise that the accumulators discarded by electric vehicles are the sought after in the market as components for building energy storage. This is the first part of gold mine that car manufacturers plan to dig in the next few years. According to scientists’ calculations, but also according to the experience with the very first plants, this second view of the previous battery of electric car holds on average about ten years. After about twenty years from its birth, even the best EV battery will no longer have adequate performance, even for energy storage. Only at this point can we talk about recycling of electric car batteries. Reusing the batteries in an electric car is not easy at all, and even car manufacturers know it well. But it is important not only to protect the environment and comply with the rules: inside a battery there are several kilos very expensive materialswhich must be recovered even just for pure economic advantage. Aluminum, cobalt, nickel, manganese, nickel, graphite, copper, all present in lithium-ion batteriescan be recycled, as well as the famous “Rare countries“which, on the other hand, is mainly present in nickel-metal hydride batteries of hybrid cars and in electric motor magnets. This is the second string of gold mine of the batteries.

from theory to practice: mercedes ev

Those who have had the patience to get this far will wonder what all these words put into practice. Why do we remember promises are not enough: There is a need for a concrete commitment on the part of car manufacturers today, so that tomorrow they are ready for the challenge of recycling batteries for electric cars. In other words: you need one battery recycling chain. If we want to talk about practice, let’s try to look at what one of the biggest car brands in the world does: Daimler, i.e. Mercedes, AMG, Maybach. The German manufacturer has already embarked on the path of electrification for some time, it will continue to produce cars with a thermal engine, but already in 2022 will have at least one electric vehicle in each market segment and, from 2025, will have at least one electric version of each model on the market. Electric SUVs Eqa, Eqb and Eqc are already available, as premium electric sedan lign and the van Eqvwhile Eqe. On these cars, Mercedes will offer a warranty of 8 years or 160,000 kilometers for the battery and already has one strategy to extend the life of the accumulators as much as possible. Four-based strategy “King“: Repair, Remanufacturing, Reuse And Reuse. The battery is repaired in the workshop (Repair), whenever possible, otherwise it is repaired (Remanufacturing) and enters the existing spare parts circuit Mercedes Reman, as a turbine or a crankshaft. As he explains Maurizio VarvaràCustomer Services Operation Manager for Mercedes-Benz Cars: “We have been doing this for many years through original Reman spare parts, which are a key element in our commercial offering. With the strong push towards electrification, we need to ensure a flow of ‘virtuous circular economy’ at the heart of this technology, the battery. Today an HV battery [High Voltage, ad alto voltaggio – ndr] defective returns to Germany and, depending on the state of health, can be regenerated and ‘back on track’ as a Reman or reused for other purposes if it can no longer meet mobility needs“.

Only then do “right“other battery life, with Reuse: If the battery is no longer charged enough to be used in an electric car, it will be sent in Germany where it becomes a part of storage used to stabilize the mains operating factories: Daimler has already installed approx 95 MWh, a capacity comparable to that of about a thousand batteries in the new Eq’s luxury electric sedan. As for the last stage, the of recycling of battery materials really, Daimler says today that they want to rely on third-party companies. Manuel Michelhead of Daimler’s circular battery economy project, explains: “Cobalt from a recycled battery will not be atomically recycled in a new battery. It’s a bit like apple juice: I have an orchard with apples, I collect apples and deliver them to an apple user. In return, they give me a coupon for apple juice. The same goes for recycled batteries: I put some back in the cycle and take it again“Current technologies make it possible extract and recycle from the batteries from a minimum of 76% of the materials, with the so-called “thermal recycling“, to a maximum of 90%, with”mechanical recycling“. That European legislation requires that at least 95% of a vehicle is recyclable, with material recycling of at least 85%, but does not yet have specific rules on the recycling of electric car batteries. Regulations to come: the European Commission already working on a first draft agreement.

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