Latteries are at the heart of the new automotive industry. Weighing up to 500 kilos and representing up to 50% of the value of an electric vehicle, they require the extraction of extremely polluting and expensive materials. To make their production profitable, it is first necessary to extend the life of these batteries, which can be used for eight to fifteen years in a vehicle before losing power, but also to give them a second life, in homes, for example. But the potential for recycling seems enormous: it could help reduce global demand in 2040 by 25% for lithium, 35% for cobalt and nickel and 55% for copper, according to a report by the Institute for Sustainable Futures. (ISF) at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia.
In an industrial area in the middle of the fields, in the east of France, the recycler Veolia has built a pilot plant on its EuroDieuze site, which mainly recovered small telephone or computer batteries. “The proportions are different, but the components are the same,” explains Pascal Muller, regional director at Veolia. The battery is discharged, stripped of its plastic and electronic casing, as well as the aluminum sheets that hold the cells – the hearts of the battery. It is then necessary to grind these cells into a powder from which the different metals will be extracted and sorted, by fire or by chemistry. Safety is essential: in addition to electrical risks, all these modules are covered with highly flammable and polluting solvents. “For the moment, we are on a lot of manual operations”, underlines Pascal Muller, who seeks with partners to “automate certain operations”.
Manufacturers manage to recycle 60% of the weight of batteries, according to the ISF. “It is technically possible to recover these four metals (lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper) to more than 90%, but there is a lack of economic or regulatory incentives that could encourage the use of recycled materials”, underlines the institute. The European Commission wants to require manufacturers to include a minimum of recycled materials in batteries from 2030, up to 12% cobalt, 4% lithium and 4% nickel. This recycling, which could become massive and profitable, arouses interest. Chinese industry is ahead, according to observers: the battery manufacturer CATL has just announced the construction of a recycling plant for 32 billion yuan (4.3 billion euros) in the province of Hubei (central from China).
In the United States, one of the founders of Tesla raised $500 million in July to expand his recycling plant, Redwood. In northern Sweden, the start-up Northvolt is due to launch a factory in 2022 capable of recycling 25,000 tonnes of batteries per year. This young giant, a partner of Volkswagen and BMW, promises to use up to 50% recycled materials by 2030 to produce batteries in its neighboring “gigafactory” in Skellefteå. This recycling project – called “Revolt” – is essential in the carbon footprint – and communication – of the company, which promises to be the “greenest” in Europe for the production of high-power electric batteries.
The French nuclear giant Orano (ex-Areva) has also launched a pilot project. “The projections for the tonnage of batteries to be recycled are colossal. We are already talking about 500,000 tonnes to be recycled in 2030”, launches Didier David, director of this project. Orano will apply its know-how from the nuclear industry in the handling of “complicated objects”, in recycling and in hydrometallurgy, a technique used for the extraction of uranium. “Not everything is standardized and each manufacturer has their own recipes. The next step will be to find the necessary funding and the customers to accelerate,” explains Didier David. At Northvolt, environmental manager Emma Nehrenheim worries: “All the forecasts we had until now were below reality. Battery production is constantly growing and there is a risk that Europe is not ready. […] We must act now. »