How will your electric car be recycled and what are the specific risks?

Transport, handling, intervention… What are the risks associated with recycling electric cars? Small incursion into Indra Automobile Recycling, the French leader in vehicle recycling.

Direction Romorantin-Lanthenay, to discover the challenges and specifics of car recycling for a day. From disassembling the interior to compacting it into small cubes, we closely follow the steps of recycling a car. The opportunity to focus on a growing activity: the recycling of electric cars. A very recent chapter in automotive recycling, which evolves over the models and the different cases found.

Indra Automobile Recycling: specialist in circular economy

A little context. Indra Automobile Recycling is a French company specializing in the recycling of end-of-life vehicles (VHU). In 15 years, Indra has consolidated itself as the leading player in France and supports all players in the sector. Particularly competent in light vehicles, the company is also diversifying into industrial vehicles and two-wheelers. To better understand the field of car recycling, here are some loose numbers:

  • 10 million vehicles reach end of life every year in Europe
  • European targets call for the recovery (recycling) of 95% of its mass since 2015
  • The Indra network reached 95.6% in 2016 (97% in Romorantin)
  • 600,000 ELVs were destroyed by Indra in 2019 (38.2% market share)
  • i.e. 655,000 tons of material, including 460,000 tons of steel
  • The average age of destruction of a vehicle in France is 19.6 years
  • The Indra-approved network comprises 380 ELV centers
  • 2 sites: Romorantin-Lanthenay (pilot) and Vienne
  • 40 people on site, including 15 engineers
  • 62 million euros in sales in 2021 (increase of 24%)

A step-by-step deconstruction

For our part, we were lucky enough to be able to visit the Romorantin pilot site and follow the different stages of ELV decommissioning. On site, each VHU is “deconstructed” in the almost opposite direction of an assembly line. While this approach may seem obvious, it requires a certain amount of logistics to optimize the treatment of each vehicle. Before looking at the electrical part, we take the time to examine each of these items. This is to better understand all the stages that each car goes through, from the city car to the minivan. Here are the different positions:

  • 1: coupling the vehicle and removing the wheels, wheel arches and number plates.
  • 2: removing the openings (doors, hood, windows) as well as the battery and lights.
  • 3: depollution, purging and removal of different fluids (fuel, oil, coolant, etc.).
  • 4: Removal of internal and external equipment, from bumpers to seats, fenders, inserts and harnesses.
  • 5: Removal of the power train (cradle, catalytic converter, other whips and jars, etc).
  • 6: removing the dashboard, cutting the windshield (safety), removing the seals and carpet.

These different positions are equipped with specific tools and devices, which serve to facilitate the intervention of workers. Each step allows you to value different components and materials (steel, aluminum, ABS, glass, textile and even wood). This is followed by a veritable deconstruction of what’s left of the bodywork, thanks to a mighty 11-ton handling arm equipped with a surprisingly precise “grip”: the aptly named “Car Power Dismantler”. Admittedly, the child in us marveled at the surgical precision of such a…destructive operation!

Recycling pilot batteries at the Volkswagen plant in Salzgitter

Electric and hybrid cars: specific risks

For over 10 years, Indra has been developing expertise dedicated to the treatment of electric and hybrid vehicles (EVH). Unsurprisingly, the latter require special care related to the presence of electric batteries. In this context, the AURECA training center also provides specific modules for the various players in the sector. Among these, we find, for example, the control of risks related to electric vehicles, or the transport of an electric or hybrid vehicle with an accident with a handling machine. Currently, there remains a part of “uncertainty” in the handling of electric batteries.

We cannot always predict and anticipate every scenario that may occur. The risks when handling an electric vehicle/its battery are not always the same. Batteries may not react in the same way, depending on whether they have been in an accident, a fire, or an immersion. In all cases, handling begins with attaching the electric battery. That’s why feedback, on a case-by-case and model-by-model basis, is essential to building a network of experts.

Used tools and devices

The equipment used is therefore crucial when it comes to HEVs. From personal protective equipment (PPE) to handling tools, every element matters. Thus, we were able to understand the why and how of certain tools and discover certain subtleties. Starting with lifting solutions adapted to HEVs. Whether the mobile lift or the two-post lift, both allow, for example, completely free access to the underbody of vehicles. This is where the operator equips himself with his electrician’s gloves, over-gloves, helmet and voltage tester. Let’s proceed with the electrical separation between battery and motor. Removing the wiring harness and fuse is done during the regular voltage check.

Removing the electrical harness

Only when no current is flowing can the battery be removed. To do this, a mobile lifting table was specifically designed. This can support up to 1 ton (the weight of electric batteries is usually between 250 and 300 kg). As you may have understood, intervention in an HEV requires a dedicated procedure, and for good reason. Imagine: a forklift operator authorized to move thermal vehicles, used to moving them with a forklift. When you run your forks under an electric car, you run the risk of falling straight into the battery! We immediately understand better the importance of these specific processes and authorizations.

What happens to the batteries?

That’s it, the battery was protected according to the disaster found. It is therefore ready to return to the manufacturer, with Indra not leaving the batteries for electric vehicles. The objective is, therefore, to give it a second life, only if the diagnosis is favorable and its traceability confirmed. Understand that the slightest leakage or insulation defect is enough to rule out the possibility of battery reuse. The same applies if the HEV passed through the recycling bin after an accident, during which the airbags were deployed, for example. As we don’t know what the shock may have caused inside, we didn’t reuse the battery. Just a precaution. In any case, electric car batteries are systematically removed. When everything is favorable, the battery can therefore benefit from a second life in different ways.

battery check

Some batteries, for example, return to circulation, while others are repaired. Those who cannot become donors and provide subcomponents used in the repair. It is also possible to reuse battery modules in alternative solutions such as retrofitting. Finally, these same modules can be used simply as energy storage solutions, among other things. Because yes, recycling is also reusing! And the further we get there, the better the circular economy will be.

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