The ID.3 and ID.4 models open a new chapter for the Volkswagen brand and the entire Group, by making electromobility suitable for mass production. Electricity is needed to operate the e-vehicles, stored in many small battery cells and modules the size of a shoebox. They are the heart of the e-vehicle – and its key components. But what happens when a battery reaches the end of its life? The solution was discovered by Volkswagen Group Research and Development and made production-ready together with Volkswagen Group Components: an innovative and sustainable process for battery recycling that Volkswagen Group Components is now using in a pilot plant at its Salzgitter site.
“Our goal is to create our own circular process in which more than 90 percent of each of our batteries is recycled,” says Thomas Tiedje, Head of Technical Planning at Volkswagen Component. “We don’t want to hand the process over at any point but prefer to train our employees and thus make them fit for the future.” The distinctive aspect: only batteries that can no longer be used in any other way are sent for recycling. Before that, the modules built into the battery system are checked to see if they are still in good condition and could possibly be given a second life in mobile energy storage systems such as flexible, fast-charging stations or charging robots. This significantly extends the use-phase life of the modules.
From research to development: How Volkswagen ended up recycling
A carmaker that recycles in-house? Around 12 years ago, the idea of Volkswagen doctoral student Stella Konietzko initially caused some bewilderment. The geologist wanted to investigate the sources from which metals such as lithium, cobalt, steel and aluminum could be recovered for the automotive industry – and what role Volkswagen Group itself could play in this. A subject that was actually still a long way off at the time and yet at the same time so relevant that it quickly became a major research project at the Technical University (TU) of Braunschweig. Together with ten other partner companies, the TU and Volkswagen Group developed a process for recycling lithium-ion batteries from 2009 to 2011 to test its feasibility. The winner: the LithoRec process, which is now being put into practice in Salzgitter.
But in 2011, the automotive market still looked very different. The Volkswagen brand cracked the five million mark in deliveries for the first time, the Volkswagen up! was the model of the moment, and MAN was freshly part of the Group. There were barely any recyclable batteries from e-cars around. Nevertheless, development of the LithoRec process was ongoing in Volkswagen’s Technical Development department. “We didn’t start too early, but just in time. Now we have the chance to start with a process that is really economically and ecologically sustainable in the end, without having to rush anything,” explains Marko Gernuks, Head of Life Cycle Optimization at Volkswagen. He has accompanied LithoRec as a project manager for years.