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Revolutionary approach paves way for circular EV motors, cutting reliance on raw materials

As electric vehicles become increasingly common, it’s crucial to recycle and reuse batteries to make them more sustainable. However, there’s another game-changing element that could have a second life: the electric motor.

Making electric motors last longer is super important for two main reasons. First off, they have precious materials like copper and hard-to-find stuff like neodymium that we can’t easily get back. Plus, the materials used in these motors leave a bigger carbon footprint compared to what’s used in regular combustion engines.

The ways we currently recycle stuff just aren’t cutting it when it comes to fixing these problems. The materials we get from recycling are usually messed up and can’t be used again for making motors. Plus, some parts of the electric motor end up getting wrecked during the recycling process.

What is the REASSERT Project?

To take on this challenge, the folks at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA have kicked off the REASSERT project.

“We want to establish a closed-loop system in which valuable resources are reused in order to eliminate dependency on raw material imports and to minimise raw material extraction,” said Julian Große Erdmann, scientist at the Institute.

With this goal in mind, the project hones in on four strategies to keep the value intact: using the whole engine again, fixing it by swapping out faulty parts, remanufacturing by breaking it down, cleaning, conditioning, and putting it back together, and recycling raw materials by taking the motor apart and sorting out the different materials before processing them.

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Creating a prototype motor that uses retention strategies

The project is going to set up a full process, covering everything from sorting motors to taking them apart, checking the components, putting them back together, and testing them at the end of their life. They’ll have a demonstrator and test rig for each of these steps.

“Depending on the chosen value preservation strategy, different process steps and chains are involved, so the effort for reconditioning may vary,” explained Große Erdmann.

The crew will work with typical motors from electric cars for passengers and make use of a cool AI tool they’ve cooked up. This tool helps pick the best strategy to keep the value high for each motor. The main aim of REASSERT is to create a prototype motor that makes it easy to use all four value retention strategies. If it works out, this could pave the way for designing new electric motors that are all about supporting a circular economy.

Five companies are jumping in on this project: Schaeffler is leading the pack, and they’re teaming up with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, BRIGHT Testing GmbH, iFAKT GmbH, and Riebesam GmbH & Co. KG. Oh, and they’ve got the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action backing them up with some funding.

Is full EV battery recycling possible?

From 2000 to 2018, the production of lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) skyrocketed by 80 times. In 2018, a whopping 66% of these batteries found their home in electric vehicles (EVs). Now, with the ongoing push for electric mobility, the demand for batteries is expected to surge. The International Energy Agency predicts a mind-blowing 17-fold increase in battery demand from 2019 to 2030.

Checking out the materials inside the lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) used in most electric vehicles (EVs), the key point is that there are different types of battery tech out there. They all have lithium, but the other ingredients differ: batteries in phones or laptops have cobalt, while those in cars might have cobalt mixed with nickel or manganese—or none at all, especially with iron-phosphate technologies.

Figuring out the exact chemical makeup of these storage components is a bit of a mystery since it’s a trade secret. Plus, they keep tweaking batteries to make them better, so the chemical recipe changes. Anyway, the key players in making lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, and graphite. And guess what? They’ve all been flagged as materials that pose risks for supply and the environment.

Figuring out the supply situation for these materials is a bit of a puzzle. On one side, the value of reserves depends on politics and changes in how we extract stuff. On the flip side, our material needs are super sensitive to hypothetical predictions—like how many electric vehicles (EVs) there’ll be and the size of their batteries.

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How will it impact the environment?

Looking into the environmental effects of making batteries might be even more crucial. Even if we have plenty of materials, we really need to think hard about the consequences of using them. Research indicates that making batteries can cause real problems in terms of human health and messing up ecosystems. Plus, there’s a need to keep an eye on working conditions in some countries. But here’s the catch—studying the environmental effects means you need to know everything about what goes into batteries and how they’re made. The tricky part is, that info is hard to get because of industrial secrets and all.

So, there are basically two main groups of battery recycling methods, and they can be used on their own or mixed together. In pyrometallurgy, they crank up the heat to get rid of the organic and plastic bits, leaving only the metal parts like nickel, cobalt, and copper. After that, they use chemical processes to separate these metals. In pydrometallurgy, they skip the whole high-temperature part. Instead, they use different solution baths that are specially designed for the materials they want to recover to separate the components.

For both methods, the batteries have to be crushed into a powder first. Right now, these processes are being used on a big scale to recycle lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) from phones and laptops, all to get that valuable cobalt. Recovering cobalt is a big deal because it’s what makes recycling these batteries economically worthwhile.

Here’s the catch: not all lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) in electric vehicles (EVs) have cobalt. That means we’re still figuring out how to make recycling them economically viable, and there’s no solid industry for it yet. The main hurdle is that there aren’t enough EV batteries ready for recycling. Electric vehicles have only recently become widespread, and their batteries haven’t reached the end of their life cycle in significant numbers yet.

And here’s another thing: deciding when a battery has reached the end of its life is up for debate. Take “traction” batteries that power EVs, for instance. They’re deemed unusable when they’ve dropped 20 or 30% of their capacity, which means a similar decrease in the vehicle’s range.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.