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Pilot plant battery recycling

Interview with Thomas Schmall and Mark Möller

An interview with Thomas Schmall (right), Member of the Board of Management of Volkswagen AG, “Technical” Division, and Chairman of the Board of Management of Volkswagen Group Components, and Mark Möller (left), Head of the Technical Development & E-Mobility Division.

The battery issue has garnered significant attention – why is that?

Thomas Schmall: The battery is not just a component, but alongside the software, it essentially represents the most important component of an electric car. It is critical for the cost, range, charging time and driving experience. This is why it is crucial for customer satisfaction and therefore also for the future success of the company.

Why is Volkswagen getting into battery recycling now?

Thomas Schmall: Precisely because the battery is considered to be the heart of electric cars. We want to understand it from cell research to recycling, and acquire total technological expertise right along the value chain. It is good for climate conservation and security of supply if we keep control of the raw material cycle ‒ the pilot plant in Salzgitter enables us to help shape a future issue with major environmental and economic potential.

We will come back to the subject of sustainability. What precisely do you do with the batteries, Mr Möller?

Mark Möller: First, we very thoroughly inspect the “health” of each battery that is returned to us. If its residual capacity is high enough, it might be used as a replacement component in a car or in a flexible quick charging column. We call this the battery’s “second life”.

And if the battery is no longer “fit” for this?

Mark Möller: Then it is fully discharged and dismantled. At this stage, for instance, we recover the aluminium of the housing and the copper of the high-voltage cables. Then the modules pass along a conveyor belt into the recycling plant where they are mechanically crushed, the components are dried and passed through a screen to filter out further quantities of aluminium, copper, plastic and steel. With a 400 kg battery, this adds up to more than 100 kg of aluminium, over 20 kg of copper and more than 100 kg of cathode metals.

They are the truly valuable raw materials: lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt?

Mark Möller: Correct. And this is our main focus – these particularly valuable raw materials are mixed up with graphite in what we call “black powder”. This contains essential battery cell components that can be used in the production of new cathode material. The final step is initially carried out by a partner who treats the powder with water and chemical agents to separate out the individual raw materials.

Are the raw materials recovered really incorporated in the next battery? How exactly is that possible and who does it?

Thomas Schmall: We know from our research that recycled battery raw materials are just as efficient as new ones. As we do not currently have our own series production of battery cells, we can use the recovered material to develop new cathodes in our Centre of Excellence for Battery Cells in Salzgitter and test them in our pilot plant ‒ on our own and with partners, such as Northvolt.

What are the specific benefits of in-house battery recycling in terms of sustainability?

Thomas Schmall: A crucial question that is easy to answer. The battery is the most expensive component of the electric car because it contains a lot of valuable material. If we recover and reuse this material, we will provide a sustainable alternative to extracting more raw materials from the earth.

So a pure cost issue then?

Thomas Schmall: It is good to keep an eye on the cost, and, of course, we then have to buy fewer raw materials if we produce them ourselves. This will make us less dependent on the market in the long term. There are environmental and social benefits, as well as economic benefits, associated with this. We will save large amounts of CO2 and will place less of a burden on the environment by reusing metals and rare raw materials. We will also create a fully transparent supply chain and, at the same time, a totally new field of work for our employees. That’s a win-win-win situation.

If we could come back to the recycling process itself: what percentage of the battery can you recycle, Mr Möller?

Mark Möller: Today, batteries are generally recycled in a thermal process by smelting them in a blast furnace. Pyrometallurgy, to use the technical term, usually results in over 50% of the material being recovered. Based on the overall process with hydrometallurgical post-treatment, we succeed in recovering over 95% of the battery weight from the process. Our aim is to achieve a closed-loop recycling process of the most important e-raw materials and to use them as cathodes. We will maximise the time until 2030, when gradually more and more batteries will be returned from the market, to optimise the results.

You are, of course, legally obliged to take them back in any case. How will you persuade customers to voluntarily return their ultimately valuable vehicle batteries to you?

Mark Möller: Correct. We will take back the spent batteries free of charge at any time. The customer will not incur any costs for their disposal. By contrast, the customer might even be rewarded for this. This might be in the form of a subsidy, along the lines of the “Apple Trade In” model, or an attractive leasing offer. In any case, customers will drive away from the dealer’s forecourt with a good conscience because they will know that their battery will be given a second life or will be recycled right away ‒ and the most valuable components will then be incorporated in the battery of a new Group-brand electric car.

Mr Schmall, it will take some time for large volumes of batteries to be recycled. Will you still be transporting all the ever-increasing volumes of batteries to Salzgitter after 2030?

Thomas Schmall: Most certainly not: the logistics of this would be too costly and it would not make sense environmentally. Volkswagen Group Components piloted battery recycling on behalf of the Group, and this will then be followed by a roll-out to the brand sites. The location and size of the plants will largely depend on the growth of e-mobility in the individual markets. Until then, we will continue to test and improve the process in Salzgitter as a blueprint and use these findings to prepare for increasing volumes that we will then handle locally.

Since 2015, the component has been at the very heart of a profound transformation toward innovative future-centric products. What does recycling mean for the workforce: will totally new fields of work emerge here?

Thomas Schmall: In my view, this presents excellent opportunities for experts in high-voltage technology. We particularly need specially trained electrical specialists capable of analysing, discharging and dismantling batteries, and supervising the process. New process development skills are also called for. Employees need to understand battery materials and bring knowledge and expertise of mechanical and chemical separation processes to the table to optimise the process.

Looking at our competitors: will battery recycling experts be today’s IT experts? Will there be a “battle for talent”?

Thomas Schmall: Yes, but not on the same scale. Recycling involves similar skills to cell production ‒ anyone who takes something apart first needs to know in how it was put together. They need to have knowledge of raw materials, cell composition and processing, as well as analysis parameters and separation processes. We will need these highly specialised people at many sites in future!

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