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What is the significance of battery recycling and why is BASF working on it?
The automotive industry is facing a major upheaval. We are seeing more and more electric vehicle models coming onto the market and the number of electric cars on our roads is increasing. As a result, the question of how to dispose of used lithium-ion batteries is of course also becoming increasingly important. At the moment, the number of used batteries from electric cars is still low, but there are estimates that in 2030, over one million tons of battery cells from electric passenger vehicles will reach the end of their life worldwide from passenger traffic alone. The batteries contain lithium, cobalt and nickel. These are valuable metals that must not end up in the trash. The same applies to material from cell production that does not meet specifications, as well as from the production of cathode active materials and their precursors. Here, too, we must close the material cycles. The aim is to avoid waste, reuse products and recover raw materials - this is something that our customers also clearly demand of us.
And a low CO2 footprint plays a very important role for the automotive industry...
Yes, that's right, this is a very important issue for the automotive industry. The battery is the heart of an electric car and therefore the CO2 footprint of the battery is absolutely a critical issue. Two issues are important here: firstly, the sustainable production of battery materials and secondly, battery recycling. If we use recycled battery materials, the CO2 footprint of the battery is reduced very significantly. This is a task on which we have to collaborate with our partners and customers along the entire value chain.
Can you explain how recycling works and what we are working on in research at BASF?
At the beginning of this recycling process, lithium-ion batteries are first dismantled and shredded. This creates a substance called "black mass", which contains the valuable raw materials. It is currently possible to recover raw materials from black mass using various chemical processes. This reduces the carbon footprint of the battery metals by at least 25 percent compared to mining from natural deposits. However, there is still a need for innovation in order to further reduce recycling costs and energy consumption and to significantly increase the lithium yield. BASF is developing a new chemical process that makes exactly this possible.
What is so special about this new process?
With the currently common processes, the lithium is extracted from the black mass by a so-called hydrometallurgical process and is ultimately available as lithium carbonate. However, today's battery materials require lithium hydroxide in their production. It is of course possible to make hydroxide from the carbonate, but this requires additional steps and reagents. In addition, unwanted by-products are generated during the production of lithium carbonate. This is exactly what we want to prevent. We have developed a process in the laboratory in which the lithium hydroxide is produced directly, thus avoiding both waste and additional steps to turn the carbonate into the hydroxide. This reduces energy consumption and the CO2 footprint compared to previous processes.
What other advantages does the process have?
In addition to the chemistry itself and the process, it is important that the purity of the recovered raw materials is correct. The challenges for battery materials are very high. Here we at BASF are well positioned because we benefit, for example, from our research and development in the electronics industry and have a large portfolio of technologies for purification. This is a major advantage, because our new process enables us to recover the lithium contained in the battery in a highly pure form.
Can you give us a brief outlook? What are the next steps in battery recycling at BASF?
Our research team successfully completed the first pilot tests in 2020 and we are now preparing to build a pilot plant. There is optimization required, but I am convinced that this recycling process can play a major role in establishing a battery cycle in Europe.