The electromobility boom demands ever more batteries. These contain lithium and other rare resources. Now there is a novel recycling process that aims to recover the resources from spent batteries as completely as possible and in an environmentally friendly way.
Kyburz is a company that develops and produces light electric vehicles in Freienstein, near Zurich, for commercial and industrial enterprises, as well as for communes and the private market. More than 25,000 of them are in operation worldwide; in Switzerland, the three-wheeled delivery vehicles used by Swiss Post are a prominent feature of the roads. Under the Kyburz MultiLife concept, resources for vehicle production are utilised to the maximum, in line with the principle of the circular economy. As a result, the electric vehicles’ lithium-ion batteries have three lives: Used vehicles are reconditioned at Kyburz and sold with a factory warranty for second-hand use. When the batteries are no longer suitable for use in vehicles, they enter their third life as stationary energy storage units in decentralised solar power systems. Finally, batteries that can no longer be reused go through the firm’s unique recycling process.
Olivier Groux, Head of Battery Recycling at Kyburz Switzerland AG, developed the bones of this process in his Master’s thesis. “Compared to conventional battery recycling,” he explains, “this new procedure has the advantage that it does not require chemicals and uses very little energy. The method is very simple in principle, but requires specific know-how when it comes to preparing and handling batteries for recycling.” The recycling process encompasses two essential steps: Once the battery cells have been discharged, they are mechanically cut open and their electrodes are removed. Next, water is used to separate these into their constituent parts. The active material, which contains the resource lithium, is thus recovered. Last year, in collaboration with Empa and Blackstone Technology, the company showed that it is possible to make new battery cells from the recycled material.
Many stakeholders feel there is a strong risk that the rapid electrification of mobility will lead to material shortages in battery manufacturing. Sustainable solutions for the recovery of battery resources are therefore of great importance. “We don’t regard old batteries as waste, but as a resource,” says Olivier Groux. He sees this change in mentality as the key to successful development of the recycling process. Currently, the focus is on integrating the water-based battery-electrode separation process into the automated pilot system. So far, this step has only been possible at laboratory scale, whereas the preceding disassembly of the battery cells already takes place in the existing facility as a matter of routine.
The recycling facility in Freienstein was granted a cantonal operating licence in 2022 and it is hoped that it will be running at full capacity and processing 200 tonnes of batteries a year by 2024. This would be equivalent to recycling between 4000 and 8000 postal delivery vehicles, depending on the capacity of the respective battery system. To further scale up the processing capacity, a new recycling-only facility is planned. As the existing pilot system is designed to completely fit inside one standard shipping container, a distributed approach to expanding recycling operations, involving multiple smaller units, for instance at electric-vehicle production facilities, could also be adopted. This would have the advantage of avoiding the need to transport spent lithium-ion batteries, which are considered hazardous goods.
Kyburz’s new recycling procedure has been specifically designed for the types of batteries used in its vehicles. Ways of extending the process to accommodate other electric vehicles’ battery systems will be sought in the future. In conclusion, Olivier Groux affirms that “we at Kyburz have no shortage of ideas on how we can improve the recovery of valuable resources from batteries.”