With plenty of older EVs on the roads today, the issue of residual battery life and recycling is more pressing than ever when it comes to shopping for vehicles or making decisions about what to do with EVs whose batteries are just about spent.
VW Group Components has developed a system dubbed BattMan ReLife (Battery Monitoring Analysis Necessity) that can check the health of a battery in just minutes, taking the guesswork and hours of charging out of the process. The first version of the software was created by the Audi Brussels quality management department for testing the Audi e-tron’s battery, and then received further work from VW Group Components at Salzgitter, which is the site of VW’s new battery laboratories.
The device first checks whether a given battery is able to communicate, after plugging in the low-voltage connectors. BattMan then detects and brings up any error messages present, in addition to the insulation resistance, temperatures, cell voltages, and capacity.
“We are able to measure all a cell’s most important parameters,” said Axel Vanden Branden, Quality Engineer at Audi Brussels. “Then a traffic light system indicates the status cell by cell—green means a cell is in good order, yellow means it requires closer inspection, and red means the cell is out of order.”
At that point, one of three things can be done. A battery could be remanufactured if it’s in very good health, for use in other EVs as a replacement part. A battery could also be repurposed, if its health ranks as medium to good, for use in other hardware such as a home energy storage system or a quick charging station. The third option is separating and recycling its components in a plant like the one recently launched by VW in Salzgitter, during which the battery is gently dismantled and the materials in it such as copper, plastics, aluminum, and black powder are separated. The so-called black powder contains valuable materials such as manganese, cobalt, graphite, nickel, and lithium, which are then separated using hydrometallurgical processes, and then combined again into a cathode material for new batteries. And at that point, the cathode material can be used for batteries in new EVs.
“We know that recycled battery materials are just as effective as new ones,” said Frank Blome, head of battery cell and battery systems at Volkswagen Group Components. “These recycled materials will be used to supply our cell production activities in the future.”
The Salzgitter pilot plant will do just that with the aim of reprocessing tired EV batteries. VW Group Components aims to achieve a recycling rate of over 90% for battery components that can be reused, with the pilot plant initially having the capacity to recycle up to 3600 battery systems a year. That number may seem small at first blush, but it works out to over 1600 tons of materials that will be recovered from those batteries. And VW plans to dial up that capacity to recycle tens of thousands of batteries annually in later years, when older EVs become much more of an issue than they are now.
So the good news is that the industry still has some time before used EVs with degraded batteries become a problem that needs to be addressed.
The bad news is that unless new solid-state compositions not reliant on rare metals emerge soon, the predicted lithium crunch could set off a major rush into EV battery recycling for which other automakers and suppliers may not be prepared.
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