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Electric and hybrid cars are expected to account for 90 percent of the global market for lithium-ion batteries by 2025. But what happens to the millions of used batteries when these cars reach the end of their lives?
A report on investments in battery recycling that will enable a sustainable shift from fossil fuels to electric vehicles.
British science journalist and permanent freelancer for Wired UK. We publish his report here as part of our Publishing Partnership with Wired UK.
Batteries may be far better for the environment than fossil fuels, but they still leave a significant CO2 footprint. Only when you solve this problem the green revolution can really deliver on its promises. The mining and refinement of raw materials is estimated to contribute 30 per cent of a battery’s greenhouse gas emissions.
In Västerås, a small town in central Sweden, there is an experimental battery recycling plant. The company Northvolt has set itself the goal to recover the raw materials from a used battery and reuse them for new energy storage devices. Northvolt was founded in 2016 by two former Tesla managers. If they succeed in achieving a breakthrough in battery recycling, this would – provided it is scalable – be a milestone in overcoming the climate crisis. The plant has been active since the summer and is already producing functioning test batteries.
Northvolt is in some respects Europe’s answer to Tesla’s impressive battery power. It has been building Europe’s first Gigafactory in its native home of Sweden since 2019, with the aim to serve 25 per cent of the European car battery market by 2030. If the pilot recycling facility is successful, a full-scale recycling plant will be built right next to the Gigafactory, which lies on the outskirts of the industrial city of Skellefteå in northern Sweden.
Right now, the recycling of electric car batteries is a complex and technical undertaking. Even before the recycling of the battery itself, Northvolt has to find a safe way to get the battery pack, with all its toxic, flammable chemicals, back to the facility. It’s a process that involves jumping through a number of safety and regulatory hoops. “Whenever a battery pack is being dismantled from the car, it needs to be safely handled,” says Emma Nehrenheim, Northvolt’s chief environmental officer. “It’s very expensive to do this in a safe way, and it is very time demanding.”
Once a battery has been safely delivered to Northvolt’s recycling centre, the process of dismantling and discharging takes place. The problem is that batteries have a tendency to go boom if disassembled incorrectly. There’s lithium, nickel, manganese, graphite and cobalt – all encased in steel, alloy and plastic. A full battery discharge will remove any stored energy and prevent any unwanted thermal runaway events, which could cause the battery to catch fire or explode.
While the dismantling of the battery pack is currently done by hand, Nehrenheim says that Northvolt is in the middle of designing an automated dismantling system. This will not only speed up the process, but also make it safer. The big obstacle for machines to overcome is battery design: no two are the same, forcing recycling facilities to craft different plans for different car batteries.
After the battery has been safely dismantled and the cells and modules retrieved, Northvolt begins to crush those cells in an air-tight vacuum, ensuring that there are no reactive gases like carbon dioxide and oxygen around to contaminate the materials in the cells. The liquid electrolyte is evaporated and condensed, finding use elsewhere in the chemical process.
The crushed material is then sorted based on various properties. Picture a massive sieve collecting the larger materials and separating them from the smaller ones, while a magnet separates magnetic and non-magnetic metals. All of this is then delivered to nearby recycling facilities. “We are dependent on partnerships to recycle,” says Nehrenheim. “Copper is something that we don’t have our own process for. Aluminium is another case where we are working together with partners.”
As soon as all the crushed material has been sorted and separated based on density, magneticity and size, all that remains is a pile of black powder, something that Nehrenheim calls “black mass”. The powder is made up of nickel, manganese, cobalt, lithium hydroxide and graphite – some of the most crucial components in a lithium-ion battery. This powder undergoes something called a hydrometallurgical process, where the black powder is effectively dumped into an acid bath. All those raw materials will be separated from the black powder, leaving behind all the ingredients needed to make a new electric car battery.
Right now the process is relatively slow and complex. But, over time, Northvolt hopes to speed it up and simplify it. Anna Korre, professor of environmental engineering at Imperial College London, says that there are three dominant methods to the recycling of battery cells. Hydrometallurgical is one of them. The other two are pyrometallurgical and direct recycling. Pyrometallurgical recycling is when a battery’s cells are smelted in a furnace at 3,000 degrees Celsius. It’s a violent process in which all the lithium is lost – not an ideal outcome when you’re trying to recycle lithium-ion batteries.
“The hydrometallurgical method performs better in terms of environmental footprint – around a 30 per cent improvement in carbon footprint when recycling is included,” Korre says. In Germany, Duesenfeld uses a hydrometallurgical process to recycle the batteries. In Belgium, Umicore uses a pyrometallurgical process.
Where Northvolt differs, however, is in its use of hydroelectricity to power 100 per cent of its production process, meaning that the company has the potential to bring its greenhouse gas emissions down even further. “We started looking for a site where we could have as high a proportion of renewables as possible to bring down the carbon footprint,” says Nehrenheim. “We have a surplus of hydropower in the Nordics.”
The company will also be sourcing the raw materials needed to produce the batteries directly from the mines, and producing the cathode itself. The refinement will also take place close to the mine. This, Northvolt hopes, will create a shorter and more sustainable supply chain that’s easier to trace and monitor. This differs from other automotive and battery manufacturers who have long, complex global supply chains. Many automotive companies buy their electric car batteries from LG Chem and Panasonic, who in turn purchase the materials to produce the cathode from suppliers like Umicore.
For now, Northvolt isn’t sourcing raw materials from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is where the large majority of cobalt – a major component in electric car batteries – is mined. In 2016, an Amnesty International report revealed that 35,000 child labourers were working in the country’s cobalt mines. While Northvolt says that it hopes to eventually mine cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo, it says it won’t until it can do so in a sustainable and ethical way.
Recycling electric car batteries is already an important issue – but as sales of electric vehicles increase it will become critical. “It’s all about having a good facility for bringing in new packs and EV batteries that enter the market and for evaluating and creating the most cost-efficient way to recycle,” says Nehrenheim. The first block of the Gigafactory recycling plant is expected to be operational in 2022, with the capability to recycle 25,000 tons of battery cells every year.
It might sound like a lot, but that’s only a fraction of the total waste caused by the rise of electric vehicles. In a 2019 paper published in the journal Nature, researchers estimated:
The more than one million electric cars sold worldwide in 2017 could result in 250,000 tons of end-of-life battery packs.
EU law dictates that battery manufacturers are required to take back their spent car batteries once they have come to the end of their life and bans the disposal of car batteries through landfill and incineration.
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“The prospect of these ending up in landfill in most countries is remote as there are strong regulations in place to avoid this and the environmental consequences of toxins leaching out into the environment,” says Paul Anderson, co-author of the Nature study and principal investigator for the Faraday Institution’s recycling of lithium-ion batteries project. “We have to recycle them. There's scarcely any other way of making these safe than to actually de-manufacture the batteries.”
Making electric car batteries greener doesn’t just require a lot of clever science – it also costs a lot of money. In July, Northvolt announced that it had raised £2.3 billion in equity and debt to support the development of two lithium-ion Gigafactories and increase research and development into recycling. The company also has investment from BMW, Volkswagen, ABB and Siemens, while the European Investment Bank has also loaned it £315m.
While Europe isn’t a leader in the realm of electric vehicle batteries at the moment, Northvolt is hoping to lead the green battery push. According to BloombergNEF’s lithium-ion battery supply chain rankings for 2020, China is responsible for 80 per cent of the world’s raw material refining, 77 per cent of the world’s cell capacity and 60 per cent of the world’s component manufacturing. “The difficulty with China is that their energy supply currently relies much on coal, which means that its carbon footprint is very high,” says Korre. “The other concern expressed widely is regarding environmental regulations as a whole.”
Pressure from cleaner, greener rivals in Europe and elsewhere could change China’s dominant position in the market for electric vehicles batteries. Anderson predicts that, in the near future, every battery factory could have a recycling plant attached to it, whether it builds one itself or has a commercial partnership with a nearby facility. And the reason might not even be because of the carbon footprint. “It will happen more or less automatically, whatever people are saying about their green credentials,” he says. “It’s on manufacturers margins. It makes sense to recover production scrap, or failed cells that never pass quality control.”
Come 2030, Northvolt hopes that 50 per cent of the raw materials that it uses to make its batteries will come from recycled material, by which point it aims to have 25 per cent of the European market. “We are not picking the raisin from the cookie as we say in Sweden,” says Nehrenheim. “We are not only talking about carbon footprints or recycling of cobalt. We are talking about ensuring that everyone understands what they are buying and about how to evaluate renewable energy in the entire supply chain.”
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