Automotive: Lowering carbon footprint with recycling

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In the current situation when climate change has become a hot issue, and the automotive sector has been targeted as a culprit too, the sector is stepping up with viable solutions to reduce the environmental impact, says Angelica Buan in this article.

Committing to Paris climate agreement

global climate change protests,

Recently, millions of people from various countries took to the streets to denounce the accelerating change in the climate. This came against the back of thousands of protesters attempting to disrupt a motor show in Frankfurt, Germany, urging a ban specifically on SUVs, and stressing a growing sentiment against the automotive industry’s role in rising global temperatures. The fact is that the transport sector accounts for 24% of carbon emissions globally and thus must employ radical ways to decarbonise.

The industry has responded by campaigning for the use of green diesel and adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). Car brands such as German automobile manufacturer Porsche has committed to electrifying more than half its cars by 2025. Another German Volkswagen (VW) and its subsidiary Audi aim to reduce the average emissions of new vehicles by 30% by 2025, and to be carbon neutral by 2050. Audi and the VW are among the first automobile manufacturers to commit to the Paris Climate Agreement.

Audi’s focus on EVs is represented by its Audi e-tron and its succeeding derivatives. The company also plans to offer 30 electrified models by 2025; 20 of which will be purely electric. The proportion of EVs will then amount to 40% of its total unit sales. The brand is also continuing to develop conventional engines with a focus on universal mild hybridisation and the 48-volt electrical system. This year, four PHEV models will be offered.

In the course of these initiatives, environmental experts are still seeking out more drastic moves. To this end, automotive players are betting on increasing the use of recycled plastics in vehicle parts.

More recycled plastics content in cars

Lightweight plastics promote fuel efficiency in cars. But using more virgin plastics is not aligned with the decarbonisation agenda of the industry. Thus, employing more recycled plastics in car parts has long been adopted by global car makers. General Motors (GM), for example, used plastic caps, bottles and other recycled materials to make radiator shrouds for some of its pickup models.

Japanese car maker Nissan used fibres from PET bottles for its sound insulation layers in dashboards, and bottle caps for parts.

Volvo’s demo version of the XC60 T8

Similarly, Swedish car maker Volvo has already pledged to use 25% recycled plastics in its cars from 2025. Representing this goal is its demo version of the XC60 T8 plug-in hybrid, which has over 60 kg of its plastic parts replaced with parts made of recycled materials.

Some of the 170 recycled plastic parts include the tunnel console that runs down the centre of the front seats, made from renewable fibres and plastics from discarded fishing nets and maritime ropes.

The seats are sewn from two different kinds of textiles, both of which are made from rPET. The vacuum reservoir under the bonnet is made of recycled fabrics from airbags. The plastic coating is from the fabric left over when airbags are cut out. The hood absorber is made from used Volvo car seats. The plastic foam inside the seats is taken, processed and formed into a sound absorber layer.

Meanwhile, Volvo announced its removal of diesel engines in the S60 model, while its engine factory in Skövde, Sweden, has attained carbon-neutral status, the company’s first facility worldwide to do so.

Second life for PET bottles as exterior parts

recycled PET bottles

Michigan-basedFord Motor Company uses about 1.2 billion recycled plastic bottles/year or approximately 250 bottles/vehicle on average. Recycled plastics are especially used for underbody shields on all cars and SUVs, and wheel liners on F-Series trucks.

The discarded bottles are collected and shredded into small pieces. The shreds are turned into a fibre, by melting the bottle and extruding it. Those fibres are mixed together with other various types of fibre in a textile process and used to make a sheet of material, which is formed into the automotive parts.

Due to its light weight, recycled plastic is ideal for the manufacture of underbody shields, engine under shield and front and rear wheel arch liners that can help improve vehicle aerodynamics, according to Ford. These shields also help create a significantly quieter environment on the all-new 2020 Ford Escape.

Reviving old batteries to make new ones

Recycling Li-ion batteries

Some reports say that EVs are not completely environmentally friendly. Blame it on their batteries. It is because production of batteries (such as the lithium ion ones) consumes large amounts of energy, from extraction of raw materials to manufacturing. Thus, recycling of lithium-ion batteries may be able to avert the excess carbon emissions.

Launching a European Union-funded battery recycling project called Recycling Li-ion batteries for electric Vehicle (ReLieVe), French multinational mining and metallurgy company Eramet, German chemical company BASF and French utility company Suez are jointly developing a closed-loop process for the recycling of lithium-ion batteries from EVs and to enable the production of new lithium-ion batteries in Europe.

BASF, a ReLieVe project partner

From January 2020, and over a two-year period, the EUR4.7 million ReLieVe project will carry out a series of activities for the large-scale development of this process and the structuring of an integrated industrial sector: from the collection and dismantling of end-of-life batteries going into recycling all the way to the manufacturing of new electrode materials.

Suez will oversee the collection and dismantling of batteries; Eramet the development of the recycling process; and BASF the manufacturing of cathode active materials. Researchers from Chimie ParisTech and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) will also back the project to accelerate the search for innovative solutions. The recycling process is anticipated to bring savings on raw materials.

Suez brings its expertise in the value chain

Around 50,000 tonnes of batteries are expected to be recycled by 2027 in Europe and it could multiply almost tenfold by 2035, according to the project movers. EIT (European Institute of Innovation and Technology) Raw Materials, which is the largest consortium in the raw materials sector worldwide, is co-funding the ReLieVe project.

Resolving the sustainability gap

By the same token, VW is already laying down its plans of battery recycling as it gears up to build 1 million EVs/ year by 2025, including at its Chattanooga plant, and is already working on how to develop a robust second life for the batteries that will power them.

The Wolfsburg-headquartered company said that new generation of EVs will bring a massive increase in the number of batteries on the road, and already there are some concerns about how these batteries will be recycled after their 10 or 15 years of use.

VW shredded an EV battery

Recycling is practicable as it can cut costs, VW said. Accordingly, EV batteries are one of the most expensive parts on such cars, due to their complexity and the rare metals they require, like cobalt and manganese. As EVs become more commonplace, reusing the metals from discarded batteries can be cheaper than mining them. More importantly, recycling can help reduce the carbon impact.

VW is, thus, working on two approaches: portable rechargers, and energy-efficient recycling.

The portable quick-charging stations can hold up to 360 kW-hours of energy and can charge up to four vehicles at a time, with a maximum quick-charge output of 100 kW. The charger has been designed to use the same battery packs as VW’s MEB EV chassis, so that when those packs reach the end of their useful life, they can be diverted into a recharge station. The first of these VW portable quick chargers is anticipated to be installed in Germany next year.

Also next year, at its first EV battery recycling centre in Salzgitter, VW plans to have an initial capacity to recycle 1,200 tonnes of EV batteries/year, equal to batteries from about 3,000 vehicles.

Using a special shredder, the individual battery parts can be ground up, the liquid electrolyte can be cleaned off, and the components separated into a “black powder.” This contains the valuable raw materials of cobalt, lithium, manganese, and nickel, which are ready for reuse in new batteries, after separation.

In the long term, VW plans to recycle about 97% of all raw materials in the battery packs, up from the current 53%, and further raise it to 72% with the Salzgitter plant.

Reclaiming valuable materials from batteries

Crisolteq’s technology

Meanwhile, Finland-based clean energy company Fortum offers a solution to recycling EV battery via a technology developed by Finnish growth company Crisolteq. Through this industrial-scale, low-CO2 process, Fortum says that it is able to reclaim over 80% of battery materials and recover the chemical and mineral components such as the cobalt, manganese and nickel, for reuse in producing new batteries.

The lithium-ion batteries are first made safe for mechanical treatment, with plastics, aluminium and copper separated and directed to their own recycling processes.

The recovery process, which takes place at Crisolteq’s hydrometallurgical recycling facility in Harjavalta, involves a chemical precipitation methodology that allows recovery of the minerals and delivered to battery manufacturers for reuse in the production of new batteries.


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