Recycling batteries means sharing data

Dr. Johannes Öhl heads the EU-sponsored "AutoBatRec2020" research project at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Materials Recycling and Resource Strategies IWKS*. Together with his team and partners from the field, he seeks to find resource-efficient ways of battery recycling. We asked the recycling expert about solutions and challenges in transport and the collection logistics.

Mr. Öhl, why is the issue of transport so important with regard to the recycling of batteries?

The issue of transport is one of the biggest challenges in the recycling of high-voltage batteries. The extremely strict regulations are one reason for this: At present, only 333 kilograms may be transported without undue effort on one transport vehicle. For something that is normally measured on a ton scale, this is far too little! In addition, batteries are often declared defective or damaged even though they may not be. The consequence is that each battery must be elaborately boxed and transported as a special hazardous material. That is much too tedious and often not necessary.

What would the solution be?

The transport regulations urgently require modification. If I take a look into the future, I am rather thinking of a truck capable of transporting several intact batteries or one damaged battery all at once – or better yet: one that handles part of the recycling already on the road.

An electro-hydraulic shredder is used for selective separation of composite materials.

What could such a recycling "on the road" look like?

For example, the Düsenfeld recycling company already offers mobile recycling containers today that shred lithium-ion batteries right there at the collecting point and remove the electrolyte with zero emissions. As a result, secondary raw materials and also the active material can be transported onward safely and subject to less constraints and lower costs. From my point of view, that is a possible approach for the future. However, new transport solutions alone are not enough. We also need an information system that interlinks manufacturers, transport logistics and recycling companies.

Why is this networking important?

Well, the current situation is that the recycling company receives only little information about the battery in its depot. So, when the battery arrives, the recycling company knows almost nothing about the battery – not how old it is, what its current state of charge is, nor what the remaining capacity is. The company also has no information about any electrical faults or how often the battery was charged during its life. Nonetheless all this information is relevant for the recycling company in order to make its processes efficient, recover as much of the battery's recyclable materials as possible and return them to the cycle at the end. The transport company that delivers the battery to the recycling center actually also ought to know about the condition of the battery. However, because the transport companies do not have access to the data, they usually play it safe, elaborately box the battery and cart it off individually even though this would actually not be necessary. This means we are losing a lot of efficiency in the entire recycling process for a simple reason: Because the recycling and transport companies have no information about the actual condition of the battery.

How could the data transfer be ensured in the future?

I believe that the possibilities of networking are far from exhausted! After all, our vehicles are already highly digitized today. The same is also true for the battery whose data is stored in the battery management system (BMS). Why do we not design the BMS from the start as open-read for recycling-relevant data and save the information directly in the battery? This would give transport and recycling companies direct access to the information they need for efficiently handling the battery.

When will this be possible technically, and what obstacles are there?

One challenge is that the auto manufacturers are rather hesitant when it comes to sharing sensitive battery data. Understandably, because all manufacturers rely on the trust of their customers with regard to the handling of data. I can understand the worry of losing competitive advantages, because information about the use and performance of the vehicle is possibly passed on unfiltered. After all, the race for first place in electric mobility is just now getting started and that also involves customer trust in terms of safety and range, but also with regard to the data issue. However, legislators and the auto industry should increasingly include data and access rights in their thinking in the future and modify them subject to certain conditions in order to jointly design efficient recycling processes. This will without doubt be necessary if we want to manage the increased battery returns ten years from now.

According to Dr. Johannes Öhl, the possibilities of networking are not exhausted in the recycling of batteries, although the vehicles are already highly digitized.

Ten years from now we will also need a solution for collecting the batteries. What could it look like?

Actually, I would wish for a similar system as we know it from household batteries. Of course, the collecting points would have to be completely different from the containers that the end customers fill with their old household batteries. However, the objective would be the same: To ensure that really all batteries are sent to recycling efficiently in order to enable a second life after the first use phase. It would be fantastic if even more companies offering precisely this established themselves on the market. Of course, with the same requirement on quality that the Stiftung Gemeinsames Rücknahmesystem Batterien (Common Battery Takeback Scheme Foundation) already requires as a standard today.

Dr. Johannes Öhl has been heading the "AutoBatRec2020" research project at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Materials Recycling and Resource Strategies IWKS for two years. He coordinates the joint project to develop the end-of-life management system of traction batteries in the direction of closed-cycle economy and sustainability in cooperation with cross-industry partners that in addition to Daimler include companies such as UMICORE and Samsung as associated partners. The subject of recycling has been dear to Johannes Öhl's heart ever since his studies in chemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. He followed his interest at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) and since then has dedicated himself to sustainable recycling processes.

* The Fraunhofer IWKS in Alzenau and Hanau develops technical and strategic solutions for the efficient use of secondary materials and functional materials. The aim of the research is to establish a closed-cycle economy and to avoid waste by recovering and recycling valuable raw materials or replacing them with sustainable alternatives. Source: www.iwks.fraunhofer.de

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