The rise of the electric car is driving growth in the battery market, a key element in the ecological transition. But producing new batteries in sufficient quantities to meet market demand will soon become impossible (very heavy in terms of extraction and supply of raw materials). That's why recycling used batteries is set to become increasingly important.

One of the first to understand this was JB Straubel, one of the founders of Tesla, who left Elon Musk's company a few years ago to embark on the adventure of recovering and reusing battery materials.

Europe has also decided to invest massively in these activities. Mainly because it does not yet have a developed supply chain (China is in a position of total hegemony in battery production) and because it wants to free itself from a position of dependence on other regions. It has also realised that recycling is the key to building a truly environmentally-friendly sector.

More and more batteries will be recycled

The European Battery Alliance, an association founded in 2017 by European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, has been working since day one to define a circular and sustainable battery market. Recycling plays a key role in this.

Volkswagen: il progetto pilota per il riciclo delle batterie

Volkswagen: the battery recycling pilot project.

Using modern methods, the percentage of materials that can be recovered from end-of-life batteries easily exceeds 80%. But there are cutting-edge methods that can go beyond 90% and, in some cases, as high as 95%.

It has to be said that battery manufacturers, precisely because of the increased attention they are paying to recycling, are designing and manufacturing batteries that will be easier to recycle once their useful life is over. This will reduce costs and deliver better results.

Regulatory constraints

Last summer, the European Council approved a directive stipulating that battery manufacturers must recover at least 63% of materials from end-of-life batteries by 2027, rising to 73% by the end of 2030. This directive applies to batteries in general. In the case of lithium-ion batteries, the targets set indicate that recovery must reach 50% by 2027 and 80% by the end of 2030.

In addition, the EU has also introduced mandatory minimum levels of recycled materials for the production of new industrial lead-acid batteries and batteries for electric vehicles. These levels are 85% for lead, 16% for cobalt, 6% for lithium and 6% for nickel.

mercedes e il recupero delle batterie

Raw materials recovered in a Mercedes battery recycling workshop

A scenario in the making

If battery recycling still plays a marginal role today, it's not just because the industry has yet to get organised. As far as the zero-emission mobility sector in particular is concerned, most battery-powered vehicles on the road today are recent and still in working order.

In other words, few batteries are at the end of their life. It should not be forgotten that most of them, even when they are no longer used in electric vehicles, will find other uses in stationary storage systems. That's why the authorities and the European Battery Alliance are working for the long term, and have set a target of 2030-2035 for the creation of an efficient and sustainable recycling ecosystem in Europe.

During this period Europe will also have time to create a network of Gigafactories capable of meeting the needs of the market on a large scale. At the moment, with China in a dominant position, it is not uncommon for the 'black mass', i.e. all the materials recovered from a battery at the end of its life, to be collected in Europe and then shipped east where it will be used by Chinese, South Korean or Japanese companies to produce new batteries.

Il recupero dei metalli preziosi presenti nei magneti dei motori elettrici da parte di Nissan

Recovery of raw materials from batteries by pyrometallurgy

Europe needs to work in a coordinated way on a number of fronts and, in doing so, as well as benefiting from the advantages already listed in terms of stability of supply, reduced CO2 emissions and the establishment of its industries on a global scale, it will also benefit from new opportunities for economic growth and employment.

The techniques used

Let's leave the geopolitical issues and return to the technical ones. At present, when we talk about recycling, we mainly refer to two methods, which are the most widely used: pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy.

  • Pyrometallurgy: as the name suggests, this aims to separate and recover individual materials by exploiting high temperatures. In simple terms, a battery is placed in a blast furnace and specific temperatures are reached to obtain pure materials or alloys of materials that can be used in new production processes.
  • Hydrometallurgy: this more recent method, which is developing at a rapid pace, involves separating the raw materials of a battery using chemical solvents. Because it takes place at low temperature, it requires less energy and is therefore more efficient. Especially if, as is increasingly the case, the solvents used are manufactured without the adoption (or with the adoption in reduced quantities) of highly polluting substances.

Gallery: Mercedes and battery recycling