In the Swedish Northvolt factory, the challenge of recycling automobile batteries

In their white protective clothing, with a respiratory mask on their faces, the employees of the Revolt factory look like astronauts. Leaning over their computers, they ensure that the battery cells, arrived here to be recycled, are properly discharged, before being disassembled, then crushed, in order to extract the black mass. This powdery black mass, composed of cobalt, nickel, manganese and lithium, is then immersed in an acid bath. The process separates the metals, which are refined, before being reused in the production of cathodes at the neighboring gigafactory, installed on the edge of Skelleftea, in the north of Sweden.

Wearing safety boots and a construction helmet, Emma Nehrenheim does not hide her satisfaction. Professor of environmental engineering, recruited in 2017 as general director of the environment by the Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt – which was then only a small start-up – she was the one who supervised the design of the recycling plant. An essential link in the vertical integration strategy of the company, founded in 2015 by two former Tesla employees, Peter Carlsson and Paolo Cerruti, whose ambition is not only to provide the European Union (EU) with a giant of the battery capable of competing with the Asian titans, but also of bringing the electric battery to the market “the greenest in the world”.

Emma Nehrenheim and her colleagues did the math: the carbon footprint of a battery cell could be as low as 10 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilowatt hour, while the international average is currently between 100 and 140 kilograms. By ensuring that its energy-intensive gigafactories only consume green electricity, Northvolt has already managed to achieve 35 kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt hour.

Emma Nehrenheim, general manager of environment at Northvolt, during a presentation of the factory's activity, in Skelleftea, Sweden, March 19, 2024.

The group, which has raised $13 billion (12.2 billion euros) since its creation and now employs more than 5,000 people worldwide, has announced the construction of six factories. Despite delays in ignition, Northvolt Ett, based in Skelleftea, has started to supply its customers, which include manufacturers Scania, Volvo, BMW and Volkswagen. By 2025, its annual production capacity should reach 16 gigawatts, before rising to 60 gigawatts. Enough to equip 1 million electric vehicles with batteries.

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A second factory, located in Gdansk (Poland), is under construction. The construction site of the third, Northvolt Drei, in Heide (Germany), was inaugurated on March 25, in the presence of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose government will provide aid of 902 million euros to Northvolt. Two more plants are planned in Sweden – one in a partnership with Volvo in Gothenburg, the other in a former pulp mill in Borlänge. A sixth will be installed not far from Montreal, in Canada.

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