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The electric car battery recycling process

In Europe, Directive 2006/66/EC concerning batteries and accumulators requires the recycling of lithium-ion electric car batteries to be at least 50%. It is also forbidden to abandon or incinerate electric car batteries.

In France, the recycling sector mainly consists of two companies: SNAM (Société Nouvelle d’Affinage des Métaux) in Rhône and Euro Dieuze in Moselle.


Steps of Recycling an Electric Car Battery


1- Battery Collection and Disassembly

Batteries are first collected at specialized centers to proceed with the dismantling of each element.

The first step is to completely discharge the battery and then remove it from the vehicle, which requires about 1 hour of labor. This operation can be carried out either directly by the automobile manufacturer, by a specialized scrapyard, or by the recycling company.

The next step is the disassembly of the battery, mostly performed directly by the recycling plant. The battery must be placed in a transport coffin to move from the extraction center to a specialized battery recycling center.

The disassembly phase is quite tedious since a battery consists of several modules, each containing hundreds of individual lithium-ion cells. For example, a Renault Zoe is composed of 48 metallic modules, each of which needs to be opened one by one to extract the metals inside.

During battery disassembly, each part is sorted, and each component is recycled differently. There are electronic components, structural elements, plastic, and of course metals: each element goes into an appropriate recycling process.

Companies specializing in electric car batteries mainly process lithium-ion cells, which contain lithium, cobalt, nickel, or manganese. The goal is to separate all these elements for recycling, using various processes including grinding.

Grinding and Metal Treatment

Various techniques such as grinding, hydrometallurgy, or pyrometallurgy are used to extract the metals from the battery cells.

Grinding is used to separate the elements from the electric cells: the machines will spit out small pieces of copper, aluminum, or plastic. Grinding also produces a black powder containing all the active materials of the cell such as lithium, cobalt, or nickel.

These rare metals can be separated using physico-chemical processes: in practice, the black powder spends about a week in a chemical tank and at the outlet, for example, nickel pieces are found. This is called hydrometallurgy, a technique by which ferrous metals are magnetically separated from non-ferrous metals.

In addition to combined grinding and hydrometallurgical techniques, pyrometallurgy can also be used. This method involves introducing lithium-ion cells into pyrolysis furnaces so that they are brought to high temperatures and the metals separate by condensation. Three products result from this method: ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals, and slag.

Once the metals are separated, they must be purified and returned to the solid state to be reused.

3- Recovery and Reuse of Raw Materials

The whole point of these different grinding or pyrometallurgical techniques is to recover raw materials for use in other industries. The various metals are therefore returned to the solid state to obtain what professionals call “cakes.”

Non-ferrous metals such as copper, nickel, or aluminum are refined in acidic solutions to be used in metallurgy. For example, nickel hydroxide is used to make stainless steel or an alloy, which can be used in everyday products such as kitchen knife blades or garage door rails.

Ferrous metals, on the other hand, are used for steelmaking, especially for luxury knives or in TGV brake discs.

Finally, treatments applied to metals result in slag, which are by-products from the high-temperature fusion of metals in liquid form. These slags can be used in the manufacture of rock wool and are appreciated as road fill or as raw material for cement.

These metals are also used as raw materials in the manufacture of new electric car batteries. The challenge of short-loop recycling is to ensure a form of European independence in accessing these raw materials, which are extracted from other countries. Industry players aim to establish a circular economy to reduce transportation and especially the extraction of these rare metals.

However, recycled metals are not pure enough to be reused in battery manufacturing. This is why scientists have developed a chemical solution to make metals ultra-pure: this is the Solvay company, which has a plant in La Rochelle. The company treats these metals in chemical tanks to give them a purity of over 99%.

The process is not yet profitable, but industrialists are optimistic and believe it will become so with the increasing number of batteries to be recycled in the coming years.


Non-Recycled Waste from Electric Battery Recycling


First of all, it should be noted that not all batteries are recycled. Indeed, many manufacturers are seeking solutions to give a second life to the batteries of their electric cars, particularly with stationary use and energy storage.

This solution is used when the battery still has energy that can be used. Otherwise, the aforementioned European Directive specifies that manufacturers are responsible for their batteries and must recycle them themselves or by using a specialized battery recycling company.

However, not all elements of a battery can be recycled. There are residual elements that do not have enough value compared to the cost of recycling. Plastics, carbons, graphites, or particles filtered by chimneys during recycling will have to be buried in specialized landfills.

According to an interview with SNAM for Automobile Propre, “2% of waste from recycling cannot be reprocessed and is sent to landfills […] about 20-30 tons per year out of 6000 tons“. Other sources may cite figures of up to 10% of landfill waste.

The Pollution Generated


Depending on the methods used, recycling an electric car battery can generate pollution. This is notably the case with pyrometallurgy, where high-temperature furnaces consume a lot of energy and emit greenhouse gases, especially CO2.

Nevertheless, the recycling sector in Europe is innovating to offer greener solutions. For example, the ReLieVe project (Recycling of Li-ion batteries for Electric Vehicles) led by Suez, Eramet, and BASF aims to recycle 100% of batteries by 2025 using an innovative process.

We can also mention the German company Duesenfeld, which uses a cold recycling method, which would consume 70% less energy and rehabilitate 85% of the materials for new batteries.


If you want to learn more about this promising sector, we invite you to read our article on electric car battery recycling in 2020.