Where can resources be preserved in the life cycle of a battery? How can recyclates become more economical so that raw materials remain in the cycle? And will we need collection points for Mercedes-Benz batteries in the future? Manuel Michel and his team are searching for answers throughout the company. In the interview for this special he explains why our batteries are the batteries for the day after tomorrow, and which recycling processes are really important.
Mr. Michel, what exactly does "circular economy" mean for vehicle batteries?
The principle is easily explained, the raw materials chain becomes a circle. Implementing this for automotive batteries is challenging, our project team looks at the entire life cycle from raw materials procurement to development, production, use and eventual recycling. The aim is to reduce the consumption of resources. This is where batteries have great potential in terms of the diverse and sometimes rare raw materials that are used from the battery cell to the case. More and more people want to be independently mobile – and we want to offer them the vehicles for this, and of course continue our own growth. At the same time it is very important to preserve valuable resources by bringing raw materials back into circulation. With our "Ambition 2039", we have therefore not only defined a CO₂-neutral vehicle fleet as a goal, but also decoupling our consumption of resources from the growth of our production volume.
How do you plan to keep more and more resources in the battery cycle?
Together with partners, we research the most effective and efficient material cycles for batteries. At an early stage, the results of the Lithium-Ion Battery Recycling Initiative (LiBri) showed us that clever recycling alone falls far short of the mark: we not only want to reclaim individual materials from the battery, from which electric toothbrushes can be manufactured for example. Instead our aim is to safeguard our own, increased raw material requirements by recycling. We can do this if we consider this last stage in the battery life cycle right from the start – for example in the battery design – and regard today's batteries as a mine for the batteries of tomorrow.
Why is it so important to take an overall view of the battery life cycle?
This is the only way to identify decisive aspects of the process: where must we change things to save resources throughout the life cycle? For example, how can we dispense with certain raw materials when developing our batteries? And especially since the current battery systems require valuable raw materials, we have to design them in such way that they can be repaired. Our colleagues in Mannheim, for example, exchange parts during the remanufacturing process to replace parts and extend the operating life of batteries. My task is to show the departments their own influence on the entire life cycle of the battery.
Battery recycling has only attracted major public attention since last year. How did you get involved in this topic?
I became very interested in batteries during my time in procurement department. My job was to purchase production equipment for our battery operation in Kamenz. That's when I fell in love with them! (laughs) The battery is such an important component for the future of our company that I was determined to find answers to unresolved questions. In fall 2018, I therefore switched back to the research and development department. Since then I have been working on the task package "Conservation of resources" for our sustainable business strategy. This is where we develop ways to preserve resources in the longer term by closing material cycles, making our processes more efficient and increasing the proportion of recyclates. With the very few batteries that are already returning from the circuit, we are preparing for the time after 2030.
How does battery recycling differ from recycling other components?
It's not rocket science, that is to say it's no more complicated than other recycling processes. However, because batteries are classified as hazardous goods or hazardous waste, we need to observe special legal requirements. This applies to their transportation, for example, and this is very complicated owing to the regulatory requirements. This means that success absolutely depends on working towards a global recycling network and developing our solutions further throughout the world.
How far are we away from the circular economy for batteries?
We are well on our way: in 2007 the smart electric drive entered the market as our first electric car. We are still benefiting from the processes that started at the same time. Initially, remanufacturing was intended to extend the life of the smart batteries. Today, the Mannheim-based company can remanufacture a wide variety of batteries, from fully electric to hybrid. Our colleagues at Mercedes-Benz Energy use batteries that are no longer suitable for vehicles in a stationary energy storage, and feed thousands of kilowatt hours into the power grid each day. We have really made a lot of progress, and we can already keep the components of a battery in the cycle for a very long time before recycling is due. And here, too, we already achieve relatively high recycling rates together with our partners. Now it's a matter of returning the recovered raw materials back into the battery cycle.
What level of recycling rate do you envisage?
According to the EU's end-of-life vehicle directive, 95 percent of a vehicle must be recyclable, of which 85 percent must be material recycling¹. The legislation does not go quite so far for batteries. The European Commission is currently working on a proposal for revising the battery guidelines, and this is to include an action plan for a circular economy. I personally hope that at some time we will be able to lay down the same requirements for battery recycling as we do for cars.
What percentage of a battery can already be reclaimed?
Basically it depends on the process. A thermal recycling process can already achieve recycling rates of around 76 percent. When research talks about material recycling, then generally speaking, more advanced mechanical processes such as shredding can already achieve recycling rates of over 90 percent.
¹ When reusing materials, commonly known as recycling, the aim is to use the material characteristics of waste. The secondary raw materials obtained from waste can either be used in another product such as recycled paper (material reuse) or broken down into its components and used to replace raw materials (raw material reuse).
So if it all works out, will I have the same materials from the old battery in the new one 1:1 in the future?
No, the same cobalt from a recycled battery will not be atomically re-used in a new battery. Instead, it is a bit like apple juice: I have a meadow with apples, collect the apples and hand them in to an apple recycler. In return, they give me a voucher for apple juice from meadow orchards. The same will be true for battery recyclates²: I put something back into the cycle and take something out again.
² A reciclate is a product of a recycling process
What components of a battery are easiest to recycle?
The battery case, cables and conductor rails are quite straightforward to reprocess. Things are more demanding when it comes to the battery modules containing most of the scarce materials. The processes for this exist, but need to be refined so that the valuable raw materials in the battery cells can be recovered in the purest possible form.
So what do I end up holding in my hands?
The individual materials in the modules are mechanically separated from each other – into plastics, different metals and the so-called black mass. The black mass is the active material from the cell's cathode: cobalt, nickel and lithium are recovered from this mass using chemical aftertreatment processes. Our team is currently working on shortening this final process by dispensing with post-treatment. We want to return the active material as a whole back into the cycle.
Do we need the support of service providers for this, namely recycling partners?
Yes, experienced partners are important. It is crucial for us that we work with service providers to tailor the recycling process specifically to our batteries. Throwing everything into the same pot with mowing robots or cordless screwdrivers does not achieve the goal. Ideally, the recycler must know and understand the exact contents and construction of the battery. If you think a little bit further, for example, a database could help, which, similar to a car, provides information about the disassembly and individual components. This is the only way we can achieve the recycling and reuse rates we are aiming for interns of the sense of a circular economy - and plan our capacities precisely.
To which recycling process does the future belong?
Mechanical processes will replace thermal processes – that much is certain. Up to now, pyrometallurgical thermal recycling has been a flexible and very efficient process due to the small quantities involved. But in the future we will need solutions that work locally. Wherever we expect volumes to be high, we want to bring recycling as close to the market as possible. And this is far easier with mechanical recycling systems than with thermal ones. Another important aspect is to find the right partner everywhere in the world who can process the material after actual recycling so that it can be returned to the battery cycle.
What personal goals have you set yourself?
I want to develop battery recycling at Daimler further in order to achieve high recycling and recyclate rates! This means that in the future, a recyclate must be cheaper and much more environmentally friendly than the raw material. This is why we are working with the procurement department and our suppliers to establish quotas for the proportion of recycled materials for our batteries. In my opinion, recyclate quotas are the major means of decoupling the consumption of raw materials from growth.
Battery research is progressing very dynamically. How do you take changes into account in your work?
We are active throughout the corporation to prepare for precisely that: when can we expect what new technology? So we always have our eyes firmly on the latest state of research, and adapt our procedures where necessary. For example, we know that the cobalt content will be considerably reduced in the coming years, and we can already adjust for this. At present we expect that only a few changes will be needed to current methods, even for post lithium-ion technologies. So far I have not encountered any battery that is not recyclable!
Looking into the future: if there is to be an international recycling network, will there also be collection points for Mercedes-Benz batteries?
Of course nobody will take a used car battery to the local drugstore and place it on the counter. The collection logistics for old batteries and their transportation are probably the greatest challenges of all. Where do I collect the defective battery, and how is it to be transported to a recycling center that can also segregate the raw materials as we require? At present cross-border waste disposal traffic in the EU is a bureaucratic nightmare. Here too, we need to do a great deal to create a working, decentralized recycling network.
What might be better than collection points?
I rather like the idea of not taking the battery to the shredder, but bringing the shredder to the battery! There are already some very promising technological approaches for the rapid, efficient and local installation of recycling processes.
What are your goals for the next five years?
Recyclate quotas in supplier agreements and closed material circuits should be a matter of course for our company. This will make us more independent of fluctuating raw material prices and uncertain availability – and naturally of ethical challenges such as water consumption when mining raw materials. The big objective is to reduce our own CO₂ footprint and use of resources by closing raw material circle – thereby contributing to a planet worth living on.