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 foray 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 internal disassembly to compaction into small cubes, we have closely followed the stages 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 along the models and the different cases found.

Indra Automobile Recycling: expert in circular economy

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

  • 10 million vehicles reach the end of their useful 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)
  • Indra destroyed 600,000 VLEs in 2019 (38.2% market share)
  • that is, 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 consists of 380 ELV centers
  • 2 places: Romorantin-Lanthenay (pilot) and Vienna
  • 40 people on site, including 15 engineers
  • 62 million euros in turnover in 2021 (24% increase)

A step-by-step deconstruction

For our part, we had the opportunity to visit the pilot site of Romorantin and follow the different steps in the dismantling of ELV. At work, each VHU is “deconstructed” in the almost opposite direction of an assembly line. If this approach may seem obvious, it requires some logistics to optimize the treatment of each vehicle. Before looking at electricity, therefore, we took the time to review each of these elements. This is to better understand all the stages that each car goes through, from the city car to the minivan. These are the different positions:

  • 1: Coupling the vehicle and removing the wheels, wheel arches and license plates.
  • 2: removal of the openings (doors, hood, glass), as well as the battery and lights.
  • 3: decontamination, purge and disposal of different fluids (fuel, oil, coolant, etc.).
  • 4: removal of interior and exterior equipment, from bumpers to seats, fenders, inserts and harnesses.
  • 5: removal of the propulsion train (cradle, catalyst, other harnesses and boats, etc.).
  • 6: removal of the control panel, cutting of the windshield (safety), removal of seals and carpeting.

These different places 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). Then there is a real deconstruction of what is left of the body, thanks to a powerful 11-ton handling arm equipped with a surprisingly precise “grip”: the aptly named “Car Power Dismantler”. Admittedly, our child was amazed at the surgical accuracy of such a … destructive operation!

Pilot battery recycling at Salzgitter's Volkswagen plant

Electric and hybrid cars: specific risks

For more than 10 years, Indra has been developing an experience dedicated to the treatment of electric and hybrid vehicles (VEH). Not surprisingly, the latter require special precautions to be taken in connection with the presence of electric batteries. In this context, the AURECA training center even offers specific modules for the different actors in the sector. These include, 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 is a part of “uncertainty” in the handling of electric batteries.

We cannot always predict and anticipate all the scenarios that may occur. The risks of 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 subjected to an accident, fire, or dive. In all cases, the handling begins with the fixing of the electric battery. That’s why feedback, case by case and model by model, is essential to building a network of experts.

Tools and appliances used

Therefore, the equipment used is crucial when it comes to HEV. From personal protective equipment (PPE) to handling tools, every element is important. Thus, we were able to understand the why and how of certain tools and discover certain subtleties. Starting with HEV-adapted lifting solutions. Whether it is the mobile lift or the two-mast lift, both leave, for example, a completely free access to the bottom of the vehicle body. This is where the operator equips himself with his electrician gloves, his overcoats, his helmet and his tension tester. Let’s proceed with the electrical separation between battery and motor. Removal of the power supply harness and fuse is performed while the electrical voltage is regularly checked.

Extraction of the energy harness

Only when there is no current can the battery be removed. To do this, a mobile lifting table has been 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 noticed, intervention in a HEV requires a dedicated procedure, and for good reason. Imagine: a forklift operator authorized to handle thermal vehicles, accustomed to moving them with a forklift. Passing the forks under an electric car runs the risk of falling directly on the battery! We immediately understand the importance of these specific processes and authorizations.

What about batteries?

That’s it, the battery has been insured according to the disaster found. Therefore, it is ready to return to the manufacturer, Indra not conserving the batteries of electric vehicles. The aim is, therefore, to give it a second life, only if the diagnosis is favorable and its traceability is confirmed. Understand with this that the slightest leak or insulation defect is enough to rule out the possibility of reusing the battery. The same applies if the HEV went through the recycling bin after an accident, during which the air cushions were activated, for example. Because we do not know what may have caused the shock inside, we do not reuse the battery. Just a precaution. In any case, the batteries of electric cars are systematically removed. When all is well, the battery can benefit from a second life in different ways.

Battery check

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

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