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3 May 2018 - Wolfgang Heumer

New life for old batteries

Success stories

Bremerhaven-based Redux is the global market leader in battery recycling

Batteries to recycle
The company breaks down up to 25,000 tonnes of used batteries into their individual components © WFB/Focke Strangmann

Anyone who disposes of their used batteries in the designated green boxes – like those found in supermarkets – can rest assured that these batteries will be almost entirely recycled. Redux GmbH, based in Bremerhaven, is the world’s leading recycler of household batteries.

A machine that can sort 40 batteries every second

The X-ray machine in the large industrial warehouse situated next to the international port in Bremerhaven is, in a word, impressive. Not just because of its design or its size, but because huge numbers of typical household batteries rush at high speeds through small holes in its case, which is approximately the size of two wardrobes. Up to 40 batteries are screened each second using X-rays, before being conveyed into the right collecting container by a blast of compressed air. This machine is owned by Redux Recycling GmbH. “The system uses the grey shadows on the X-ray images to identify the type of each battery,” explains CEO Holger Kuhlmann. He pauses briefly, before adding, “The system was developed a good 20 years ago and is still state-of-the-art. Not bad, eh?”

Sorting machine at Redux
This X-ray machine sorts 40 batteries every second © WFB/Focke Strangmann

25,000 tonnes of old batteries per year

Each year, up to 25,000 tonnes of used batteries are broken down into their individual components in this Bremerhaven-based business. Their contents are salvaged and recycled. “Compared to other materials cycles, this is a relatively small amount of material, but we are the leading company in this niche market,” says Kuhlmann. Engineers and scientists from Bremerhaven laid the foundations for this success just before the turn of the millennium. They developed the sorting process as part of a publicly subsidised research project after the EU introduced mandatory collection for old batteries. Until then, used batteries were simply thrown out in household rubbish. Because of their heavy metal content, which at that time also included mercury, this caused significant environmental damage.

Batteries contain rare and valuable materials

However, Kuhlmann considered all aspects of the recycling process, not just the environmental impact. “Batteries contain a number of rare raw materials such as nickel, cobalt and zinc. We bring these valuable elements back into the materials cycle.” It’s an ambitious goal – wherever possible, Redux wants to achieve a 100% recycling rate. “Zero waste is our aim”, says Kuhlmann. In other words, an old battery should be turned into a new battery.

Specialised separation technology

The technical process sounds simple but is actually very complicated. The batteries are first sorted according to their type. Then, they are shredded and separated into their individual components using specialised technology. This raw material can be further refined by melting it or treating it with chemicals. Redux employs around 30 staff in Bremerhaven, and has a second site in Offenbach am Main. It works on behalf of the collection systems that manufacturers and retailers now have to offer by law. Altogether, Redux is responsible for battery return systems in 20 different countries.

High voltage
Old batteries should be put into the green containers in order to be recycled for new energy © WFB/Focke Strangmann

High voltage, even in used lithium-ion batteries

For a number of years, a new type of battery has entered the market, with unique requirements for the recycling process: lithium-ion batteries. They are used in electronic devices like smartphones and cameras, as well as in electric bikes and electric cars. “This means that we are talking about a number of incredibly different shapes and sizes,” explains the Redux CEO. However, the actual problem is the extremely high energy content and high energy density, even in used batteries. Voltages between 400 and 600 V are not uncommon. Before anything can be done with these batteries, they must be completely discharged.

Setting standards with a new method

In spite of these difficulties, the Bremerhaven experts succeeded in developing an innovative system to disassemble the batteries. The system is currently being set up and will begin operating in just a few weeks. “This technological advance means that we are well equipped to deal with the new market,” Kuhlmann says proudly. This has attracted a number of major parties who are interested in cooperating with Redux. Even though the company’s address predates the business by decades, it is certainly fitting: Batteriestrasse 94.

If you want to know more about Redux-Recycling GmbH, please contact Holger Kuhlmann, CEO at Redux-Recycling GmbH, +49(0) 471 97 24 811, info@redux-gmbh.de.

You can find the German version of this article here on the BIS Bremerhaven website.

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