March 13, 2023 – How can today's batteries be used as mines for tomorrow's needs? Mercedes-Benz is addressing this question together with technology partners and scientists in a pilot factory that is currently being built in Kuppenheim in southern Germany. Manuel Michel, Head of Battery Recycling, reports on the most important tasks and explains why high-tech processes contribute to social sustainability.
Mr Michel, why is Mercedes-Benz investing a double-digit million sum in order to develop its own battery recycling capability?
The core aspect was to build a sustainable system according to the circular economy. In our pilot factory in Kuppenheim, we want to put our vision into practice. Not only will the energy supply be CO₂-neutral on the balance sheet, additionally we want to recover as many raw materials as possible from batteries without any loss of quality. With this ambition, we are going beyond the legal definition of recycling, which, for example, also includes the incineration of materials as thermal recycling. We will avoid downcycling and produce recyclates with the highest possible degree of purity instead. In this high-tech facility, which is currently under construction, we will develop important know-how with experts from business and science. Through this facility, we will make an important contribution to the transformation of our Group.
Which challenges are we facing when it comes to battery recycling?
In certain areas, we are still in the early stages, such as the return and transport of batteries. One question we ask ourselves is how and by what means will the batteries come to us? Then there is also the question of further optimising the recycling process. As an example, we work with a two-stage process that avoids incineration (see info box). This is where our partners come into play, because after all, we are experts in the development and production of vehicles, and less specialists in chemical processes in recycling. Another challenging question for us is how we need to develop and design future batteries in order to achieve optimal recyclability. And last but not least, it is a matter of reintroducing battery-capable secondary raw materials such as cobalt, nickel or lithium back into the supply chain in order to achieve full circularity. This may sound easier than it is, as raw material processing occurs at an early stage in the value chain.
Recycling also consumes resources. How much of an environmental advantage does it provide compared to the use of primary raw materials?
The answer is very complex and depends on many factors. The process itself plays a role, but of course, so does the specific composition of the battery and the origin of the primary raw materials. In various lifecycle assessments, our colleagues from Corporate Environmental Protection have calculated that the CO2 footprint of a battery made entirely from recycled materials is significantly smaller compared to a conventionally produced battery.
How do you evaluate battery recycling from a social perspective?
It is part of our social responsibility to conserve scarce resources and keep materials in the loop for as long as possible. Innovative recycling processes help in achieving this goal. They are a third important pillar alongside reprocessing and the longest possible reuse, for example in a stationary energy storage system. At present, we expect the relevance of battery recycling will increase especially from the 2030s onwards, when the vehicle batteries used today will be successively phased out. We must now begin with the development of corresponding processes in order to decouple economic growth and resource consumption more strongly.
How do you build up the expertise at the new location - do you primarily retrain employees for the new job profiles?
Yes, this works very well. As in the existing plants, we need production planners, process engineers and employees who can operate high-tech facilities. Even employees who have worked in transmission assembly for decades can be qualified for new job profiles with the help of targeted learning paths for dealing with battery technologies. The Mercedes-Benz Group offers corresponding opportunities with its Turn2Learn training programme. In addition, colleagues from cross-functional areas such as human resources, maintenance and controlling also contribute. These jobs will continue to exist.
In the longer term, with battery recycling, you are building up a source of raw materials that will make you less dependent on volatile markets, but also on the mining of critical raw materials. What does this partial withdrawal mean for the people at the beginning of the supply chain?
This important question highlights the complexity of the transformation towards a fully electric future. Finding solutions for such changes can only be achieved through collaboration. A multitude of partners along the entire value chain and beyond must shoulder the responsibility and find ways for the transformation to succeed while ensuring that people along the value chain are included. Innovative concepts and pioneers who take the first steps in their respective areas of influence are very decisive factors in this regard.
The basis of the new recycling factory is an innovative mechanical-hydrometallurgical process that completely avoids energy- and material-intensive combustion processes. Instead, the materials are mechanically disassembled. Subsequently, chemical compounds are broken down to recover especially the valuable components of the battery cell as pure sorted metals. The patented recycling process currently achieves a recovery rate of at least 96 % to be further increased by 2025 together with technology partners.
Manuel Michel has worked intensively on the circular economy and recycling of lithium-ion battery systems since 2019. He is responsible for the pilot plant in Kuppenheim within Mercedes-Benz Group AG. As an industrial and mechanical engineer, he was previously responsible for the optimisation of combustion engines in Research & Development at Mercedes-Benz.