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URT: plant specialist powers on to battery recycling

The extracted black powder is filled into big bags and prepared for onward transport for the raw materials to be separated into their individual types.

The first plant for recycling end-of-life e-car batteries from an automobile manufacturer started operations in Germany at the beginning of 2021.

‘Our goal is to create our own cycle with more than 90% recycling of our batteries,’ says Thomas Tiedje, head of technical planning at Volkswagen Component. ‘We don’t want to hand over the process at any point but prefer to train up our own employees and make them fit for the future.’ The key feature is that only batteries that can no longer be used for any other purpose are being recycled.

Before the recycling process gets underway, units within the battery system are checked to see if they are still in good condition and can possibly be given a second life within mobile energy storage systems such as flexible fast charging columns or charging robots. This significantly extends the useful life of the units.

Volkwagon’s innovative turnkey plant was designed, built and delivered by the Bavarian plant manufacturer URT Umwelt- und Recyclingtechnik in Karlstadt. For more than 25 years, URT has specialised in the construction of plants for processing electrical and electronic waste and supplies them worldwide.

It is precisely this knowledge that can be incorporated into processing plants for batteries because URT is also a specialist in shredding in inert atmospheres to prevent exothermic reactions, which can occur when batteries are shredded. The aim of the plant is to separate the component materials of a lithium-ion battery so that each recyclable material can be used again in a new battery.

URT plant concept

Previously deep-discharged batteries are fed into a single-stage shredding process via a sluice system. Subsequently, the total shredded fraction enters a vacuum dryer that evaporates the electrolytes. They are then condensed again and filled in liquid form. This part of the process, from shredding to dryer discharge, is wholly contained and kept inert by a nitrogen atmosphere.

The dry active material (black mass) is separated from the remaining components by sieving and then filled. In order to meet European recycling targets, the active mass must be almost completely separated.

Partner companies from the chemical industry then separate the black mass into its individual components using a hydrometallurgical process using water and solvents. These can be used as secondary raw material for the construction of cathodes of new batteries without any loss of quality compared to new, primary material.

Ferrous metals are separated from non-ferrous metals by magnetic separation processes. Anode and cathode foils are other components of the batteries separated in the plant. In addition to falling below the occupational exposure limits, the emission values are also below the Technical Instructions on Air Quality Control (TA Luft).

This is ensured by a multi-stage exhaust air after-treatment system consisting of gas scrubbing and activated carbon adsorption. Plants using exhaust air post-combustion are also conceivable.

Experience in battery recycling

Many plant modules that URT uses in battery recycling were developed by the company and have been in use in other recycling tasks for many years. In addition to shredding in a nitrogen atmosphere or exhaust air post-combustion, various separation techniques are also part of these modules. Apart from the Volkswagen partnership, these techniques have also been used in other battery recycling plants. For example, URT supplied the shredding technology for the LithoRec II battery development project in 2014.

As well as establishing plants for recycling high-voltage batteries from electro-mobility, URT is also planning plants for processing batteries from electronic and electrical appliances such as hand tools, laptops, e-bikes, e-scooters and mobile phones. Potential customers for battery recycling plants are recycling companies and battery manufacturers. With an export rate of over 90%, URT is perfectly placed to supply plants for battery recycling worldwide.

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