What happens to the batteries of electric cars at the end of their life? Contrary to the many received ideas and false information which circulate, they are massively recycled. Automobile Propre takes you into the reality of recycling and reuse of old electric vehicle batteries.
The battery is an electric car’s most valuable component, accounting for around a third of its price. Depending on the type of technology and user behavior, it can last more than ten years in the vehicle. But what happens when the car is scrapped? In Europe, electric vehicle manufacturers are required to recycle their batteries. A constraint set by European directive 2006/66 / EC and article R543-130 of the French environment code.
In addition, the Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) maintains a “national register of batteries and accumulators” in which all operations must be recorded by approved recycling organizations. The majority of used batteries are thus entrusted by the manufacturers to specialized companies. To ensure that as many batteries produced are recycled, they reserve long-term processing volumes.
Even worn, a battery remains precious
In any case, you should know that an electric car battery retains value even when it is very worn. It contains large quantities of precious materials and a significant potential for commercial reuse. There is therefore absolutely no point in dumping it in the landfill, in the wild, or in sending it to an obscure treatment channel abroad. In addition, a traction battery is quite large and weighs between 100 and 600 kg. It is impossible to handle it with bare hands and transport it without a vehicle and suitable equipment. There is therefore considerably less risk of it ending up outside a recycling circuit, unlike a battery in a smartphone, laptop or bluetooth speaker.
The collection rate for cells and batteries from these portable devices was only 46.7% in France in 2018. No consolidated data is currently available on the collection rate for electric car batteries. They are effectively considered as “industrial accumulators” by the legislation and embedded in this vast category. In addition, electric vehicles being recent, very few batteries are now scrapped. ADEME thus indicates that the few accumulators treated (2% of the volume of industrial accumulators collected in 2018) “Mainly come from damaged or defective vehicles”. The first hybrid or electric car batteries “Were collected in 2011, following the establishment of a network in partnership with car manufacturers »Specifies the agency, in its annual report of the register of batteries and accumulators of 2018.
The stages of recycling
When an electric vehicle that is damaged or at the end of its life is broken, its battery is removed. On the vast majority of models, it is bolted under the frame. It is therefore sufficient to place the car on a bridge, disconnect the circuit breaker and unbolt the accumulator, which is received on a trolley. The operation can be carried out by the scrapyard if it has the right equipment and skills, by the car manufacturer, who can send a team to the site in certain cases or by the approved recycling company. It is then shipped to a processing plant.
This video of a battery replacement operation provides a better understanding of how a pack is removed from the vehicle.
If it is too damaged, for example following a serious accident, it travels in a specific metal case, a “sarcophagus” equipped with sensors and an automatic fire extinguishing system. On arrival on site, the battery is opened and tested to determine its level of wear. Depending on its condition, it can be completely dismantled to recycle its components or reconditioned for a “second life”.
The “second life” of a battery
The “second life” is to reuse the battery when it is no longer in good enough condition to power a vehicle but has enough power and capacity to be used in a stationary storage system. It can therefore be used to store renewable energy produced by an individual, a company or an electricity grid operator. Most car manufacturers have already carried out “second life” projects with their own batteries.
Extraction and separation of materials
When a battery is too degraded for this use, it is sent to a recycling unit. The law, which is now quite flexible, requires recycling companies to recover at least 50% of the weight of a battery. All of them far exceed this level and claim between 70 and 90% recycling depending on the battery technology (lithium-ion, NiMh, NiCd, LMP, etc.) Different techniques specific to each company make it possible to extract the different materials that make up an accumulator . The batteries can thus be crushed or heated in a pyrolysis oven in order to separate the elements. A wide range of chemical and mechanical processes then refine them to produce powders and ingots of raw materials: lithium, nickel, copper, aluminum, cobalt, cadmium, etc. that can be reused infinitely.
Residual waste, mainly plastics treated to resist fire and particles filtered by the chimneys during the recycling process, are put in drums and buried in specific approved landfills. Technological progress in recycling and eco-design should make it possible to come closer to 100% recovery in the future. Whether you have an electrified car or not, don’t forget to bring the batteries of your devices to collection points! You are much more likely to lose them outside a recycling circuit than a traction battery.