How battery recycling is making automobile logistics more sustainable

Rebirth is not a myth when it comes to lithium-ion batteries! Instead of disposal, they are often experiencing a so-called ‘second life’ thanks to battery recycling. What is involved in the life cycle of power units for electric vehicles battery cells such as batteries and rechargeables? What needs to be considered in the logistics operations for these hazardous components? Let´s find out!

View from above of battery elements lined up in a row

E-mobility is enjoying a boom around the globe. The demand for electrically-powered vehicles is increasing in the light of sustainable developments and the need to reduce traffic in big cities. As part of this process, the lithium-ion battery systems (LIBs) are one of the most important and most expensive components in electric vehicles.

Lithium-ion batteries: energy supplies for the future

As metals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and graphite are used to manufacture LIBs, they currently account for about 30 percent of the overall costs of a vehicle. A new lithium-ion battery costs about EUR 129 per kilowatt hour at this time. Further price reductions are forecast during the next few years.1 According to BlooombergNEF, next-generation technologies such as silicon and lithium metal anodes, solid-state electrolytes, new cathode materials and new cell manufacturing processes will play an important role in this process.

However, alongside their price and operating range, the sustainable production of LIBs is playing an increasingly important role too. While there may be delivery bottlenecks because of the locations of the raw materials, most of which are situated in Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Australia, the USA and China, battery production is set to take place very close to markets (the automobile manufacturers and final customers) in future. As a result, manufacturers of battery cells are increasingly announcing the expansion of battery cell production capacity in Europe, including regions such as Hungary, Poland, Scandinavia and Germany.

This has a major benefit: sustainably generated electricity can already be used in Europe to manufacture the battery systems and this further reduces the CO2 footprint of LIBs. Europe can also handle the manufacturers’ need for qualified personnel. However, there is a great deal to consider when it comes to producing and storing the LIBs – before recycling the batteries at a later stage.

Automobile logistics includes battery recycling from electric vehicles


“There’s a great deal of module variety with battery systems for electric vehicles. Electric and traditional vehicles are often assembled alternately at the production site too in order to meet the daily volume target. In order to ensure that this functions as quickly and precisely as possible, the drive system and the battery unit must be supplied in sequence.”

Dr Marcus Ewig | Managing Director of Rhenus Automotive SE
which is an automobile logistics services provider that specialises in assembly and logistics operations.


“The correct storage and assembly of the battery systems should take place very close to where they’re inserted into electric vehicles because of the enormous weights and dimensions involved. Many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are therefore choosing suppliers and automobile logistics partners, which handle the pre-assembly work and storage at their own business sites. The storage space at the production sites can then be used for other purposes.”

Any storage of LIBs must also take place in line with special requirements and standards, such as the German water protection and fire protection regulations. The just-in-time and just-in-sequence deliveries to the production site can then be made from the warehouse.


A summary of information about lithium-ion batteries

  • LIBs have a service life of about 10 years in their ‘first life’ as a drive system cell.
  • As far as the batteries’ ‘life cycle’ is concerned: battery recycling for a ‘second life’, where 90 percent of the nickel and cobalt can be removed from batteries that have been collected.
  • There are various different formats: cylindrical, prismatic, pouch. Cylindrical cells currently have the highest energy density. Commercial solid-state batteries are being developed.
  • Advantages of LIBs: high cell voltage, no memory effect when recharging the batteries (the battery can be fully recharged and does not ‘remember’ any previous battery level), a high degree of efficiency, low self-discharge rates.
  • Relevant raw materials: metals, including manganese, lithium and graphite. Studies have proven that there are enough raw materials available for the forecast future needs of electric mobility. However, there may be temporary shortages or increases in prices (due to opening up new mining sites, increases in demand, exports from mining areas).
  • LIBs are a ‘Class 9’ hazardous item. They pose a considerable fire risk because of their high energy density. They can spontaneously ignite because of technical or mechanical faults and cause a fire to spread quickly.


Disposal was the recipe in the past: now rebirth for the batteries in a second life

After about 1,000 charging cycles – which have been reached after about 10 years or travelling 150,000 kilometres – the performance of a typical lithium-ion battery is no longer adequate to power an electric car. However, this does not mean that the battery can no longer be used because it still retains about 50 – 70 per cent of its energy output. These batteries can start their next life in second application systems through battery recycling, for example, as storage media for wind and solar energy, to stabilise the electricity grid, as a source of emergency power or even for charging electric cars.

But why bother to go to all this effort? In addition to the sustainability aspect – after all, batteries should not end up at rubbish tips with all their hazardous components – lithium-ion batteries were responsible for about 60 per cent of the metal cobalt that was produced around the world in 2020. It is one of the rare metals that are used to manufacture a number of technical devices – ranging from smartphones to camera batteries and electric cars and even catalytic converters. The materials themselves are not only valuable, but it is expensive to mine them and it is difficult to dispose of them in an environmentally-friendly manner.

“Reusing and recycling cobalt, nickel, lithium, manganese and other materials will not only increase sales of electric cars in future, but also give us the opportunity to handle the raw materials that are available to us and the environment in a considerate and sustainable way. A recycling economy is therefore an integral part of any battery life cycle management.”

Dr Ansgar Fendel | Managing Director of REMONDIS Assets & Services, 
which is one of the world’s largest service providers for recycling, services and water.

The number of batteries for electric vehicles is set to increase from 55,000 at the moment to 3.4 million by 2025. When compared to new batteries, companies are not only able to reduce their CO2 footprint, but also costs by using second-hand batteries. The demand on the part of electricity suppliers for second-hand LIBs as intermediate storage points is already increasing. The LIBs can store any excess power, particularly in the field of renewable energy, and this can then be systematically fed back into the grid.

“As a recycling company, we’ve therefore been working with the automobile logistics service providers right from the outset and are drawing up joint concepts for maintaining, testing, reusing and then recycling battery systems,” says Dr Ansgar Fendel. However, he points out that, “Before batteries can be used in their second life, checks need to be made to see whether they’re suitable for this, because second-life batteries have a higher failure rate and a shorter life cycle. Any further use of LIBs depends on the size and type of the battery, its state and the technical processing work that’s required. The usage market also determines whether LIBs or rechargeables are suitable for a second service life or not.”

Current business models so far primarily envisage the use of just one single type of battery for each project, as the models can be very different in their form and function. “In order to further simplify any second usage of the systems, some standardisation of the battery systems should take place so that assembly and disassembly work becomes less expensive and it’s possible to further increase the degree of automation in the process,” says Lukas Brandl, the Head of Battery Recycling at TSR Recycling, a company that specialises in recycling raw materials, adding his comments.

Final destination for the batteries: sustainable value added thanks to recycling batteries from electric cars

Producers of battery cells and automobile manufacturers are obliged to take responsibility for the collection, treatment and recycling of all the accumulated batteries in the European Union. There are similar regulations for recycling in China too and in individual states in the USA.

The first challenge when recycling batteries involves storage. “Second-hand lithium-ion batteries must be stored in UN-certified containers, which now need to be filled with additional fire-retardant material, in an enclosed storage area with a separate fire section. The downside of LIBs is, unfortunately, that any faulty batteries pose a considerable safety and fire risk. Our employees perform the dismantling work and therefore initially check the batteries for any faults. If it’s impossible to continue using the battery, we hand it over to a recycling company,” Dr Marcus Ewig explains.

Lukas Brandl adds, ‘We dismantle the LIBs down to a module level, then perform deep discharging and work with other recycling partners to achieve greater value added. As a result, we guarantee the best possible recovery of the raw materials and make a crucial contribution to closing the material cycles.’

The main value assets, which are recycled, also include copper, iron/steel and aluminium. Recycling facilities, such as the world’s largest for LIB recycling, can handle up to 7,000 tonnes per year. Copper, aluminium and plastic are directly obtained from dismantling the LIB modules. The cells are then dismantled, as a result of which the so-called black mass is extracted and cobalt, nickel and manganese are recovered from this. Lithium can be recovered in a subsequent process by a lithium processing company, although this procedure currently causes a great deal of work and is a major cost factor. The battery case and electronics are handled in separate processes. According to the Fraunhofer Institute ISI, the earnings from dismantling are estimated to be EUR 210 – 240 per tonne of batteries, where aluminium accounts for half of this figure and steel and copper for one quarter each. The actual recycling work for the cells is more complex and the Fraunhofer Institute ISI cannot yet provide any cost data for this.

“The goal is to recycle as many components from a battery as possible. They can then be used to make new batteries and therefore protect resources,” says Christian Kürpick, the RETRON Project Manager at REMONDIS. Although recycling batteries is still a costly and time-consuming business, the market, politicians and society are constantly providing new impetus here and encouraging the development of new processes.

If, according to the Fraunhofer Institute ISI, high collection rates and recovery of 25 to 30 per cent of the lithium from old batteries can be guaranteed for LIBs, this could cover between 10 and 30 per cent of the annual need for production up to 2050. Automobile manufacturers could include the cash value of the battery in its second life in the purchase price, which would continue to reduce the price of the vehicles and encourage greater use of electric cars. One thing is certain: logistics and the disposal business are already on board and are preparing the way for all-round, sustainable battery life cycle management thanks to battery recycling.

Find out more about the all-round services of Rhenus when it comes to recycling batteries to give them a second life.

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