Leading carmakers are mining scrap vehicles for valuable raw materials to reuse in new cars

The automotive industry is one sector that is pushing the envelope on the circular economy. Japanese car manufacturer Toyota is securing valuable new sources of raw materials, including rare earth metals, by refining its scrap vehicle dismantling processes. Toyota announced in 2014 that it had developed a system to extract and recycle copper from vehicle wiring harnesses without it being contaminated by impurities.

After trials at Toyota’s Honsha plant in 2013, and stringent quality checks, the retrieved copper was successfully reintroduced into the vehicle production process. The car maker says the technology has delivered recycled metal with 99.96% purity, and estimates 1,000 tonnes of copper can be produced annually using the process.

In 2015 it announced a goal to establish a recycling-based society, focused on four key areas: the use of eco-friendly materials; using parts for longer; developing recycling technologies; and manufacturing new cars from end-of-life vehicles (ELVs). Last year, the company embarked on a huge project, the Toyota Global Car to Car Recycle Project, whereby technologies and systems like the copper wire harness recycling scheme will be rolled out globally.

Steve Hope, general manager for environmental affairs at Toyota Motor Europe, says the project will also aim to scale up ELV hybrid vehicle battery-to-battery recycling, and magnet-to-magnet recycling for neodymium and dysprosium, two rare-earth elements embedded in the magnets used in Toyota’s hybrid vehicle motors. Toyota has also been looking to develop a new application for reusing recovered neodymium and dysprosium as additives to catalysts, diversifying the recycling possibilities.

Vehicle models like JLR's XE, XF and F-PACE now contain up to 50% recycled aluminium (credit: Jaguar Land Rover)

“Those are three technical projects which have been proven at pilot scale, the challenge now is to make them work in an economic way across the world. That’s a huge step. You might be able to do some of these things in Japan, but to set up these processes in other countries may take some time.”

He adds that a key challenge is the market price of commodities. “It’s cheaper in many cases to still use virgin material than to use recycled material. But that doesn’t stop us taking these projects forward. Hopefully in the future, enough momentum can be gained to make them financially viable.”

Toyota is still undertaking feasibility work with the Car to Car Recycle Project, and no key targets have been set yet for recovery of such materials from ELVs, but Hope says the aim is to get back 100% of Toyota’s hybrid vehicle batteries for recycling, ideally to go back into hybrid battery manufacture.

“That means some difficulty for our European operations because we don’t have battery suppliers that are located in Europe, so it may involve us producing a recovered material which goes back to another country outside of Europe for incorporation back into the new product.”

There are also a number of technical hurdles, Hope says. “There are certain safety and quality requirements that are built into the material specifications for vehicles. You could recycle some plastic, but it may not behave in the correct way during an accident. A bumper made of polypropylene material, if it doesn’t deform in the correct way during a collision, might make sharp edges which could then injure a pedestrian. It’s important to be aware of these challenges when targeting which materials to take back into the supply chain.”

Toyota is hoping to address some of these issues through materials innovation. It has developed a high performance polypropylene resin material, called Toyota Super Olefin Polymer (TSOP), which can be used in car bumpers. As TSOP doesn’t degrade so rapidly over time, it can be recycled many times.

“If we can stimulate greater use of recycled plastic within our vehicles, that would be quite positive,” says Hope. “We want to progress in that area, but we still have work to do, particularly on the R&D side relating to some of the safety and quality considerations.”

Meanwhile Jaguar Land Rover’s  REALCAR (Recycled Aluminium CAR) project focuses on vehicle lightweighting through the closed loop recycling of aluminium offcuts from its own production process.

Adrian Tautscher, JLR's group leader for sustainable aluminium strategies (credit: Jaguar Land Rover)

In 2015-16, REALCAR reached a milestone by recovering and recycling more than 50,000 tonnes of JLR’s aluminium press shop scrap and feeding it back into the manufacture of new cars, preventing more than 500,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent from entering the atmosphere. Vehicle models like JLR’s XE, XF and F-PACE now contain up to 50% recycled aluminium and the car maker is now looking to build on these efforts as REALCAR enters a new, more challenging phase.

In a bid to source greater volumes of scrap aluminium, JLR has recognised it needs to look outside of its own production operations and tap into external waste streams – one of which is the end-of-life vehicles (ELV) market. REALCAR is now being taken to the next level: known as REALITY, this 36-month project part-funded by Innovate UK will explore the feasibility of sourcing post-consumer scrap aluminium from automotive sources for recycling and reuse in JLR cars.

“Given our growing volumes we are looking for recycled sources that provide the necessary volumes in line with our current and future consumption of aluminium,” says Adrian Tautscher, JLR’s group leader for sustainable aluminium strategies. “ELVs will be the main focus [but] we will continue to assess the wider recycling opportunities as we progress through the project.”

One of JLR’s key REALCAR partners is aluminium reprocessor Novelis. Andy Doran, senior manager for sustainability and recycling development at Novelis Europe, says that in order to continue developing circular economy solutions, scrap sourced from ELV will become of increasing importance to the aluminium value chain.

He cites recent research from European Aluminium, which shows the aluminium content of cars produced in Europe contains an average of 150kg per vehicle, of which 50% is categorised as flat rolled products such as sheet aluminium used in body closures, body structure, heat exchangers and heat shields.

“This is of direct interest to our recycling operations – this figure could grow to 200kg per vehicle by 2020,” he says. “The challenge is to successfully extract the desired material at a consistent quantity and quality to sustain a viable closed loop system.”

The aluminium content of cars is growing fast (credit: Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock)

Doran adds that a key factor here will be to establish what degree of metal dismantling and quality of aluminium alloy separation is needed to meet the high technical specifications demanded by automotive alloys. 

Much of the detail around REALITY remains confidential, but the project will utilise advanced sensor-based scrap sorting technologies to separate out the different aluminium alloy types for scrap cars. These alloy types will be melt conditioned to remove or tolerate any impurities, before being turned into scrap-based sheet and castings that will undergo evaluation to ensure they meet JLR’s input material chemistry criteria.

Asked how much scrap aluminium JLR hopes to recover over the duration of this project, Tautscher says he is unable to disclose specific volumes, but adds that learnings from previous REALCAR projects found the most robust approach was to incorporate both laboratory-based small batch trials and larger production scale trials.

“Production scale trials involve casting full sized ingots – an automotive ingot produced by Novelis is around 10 tonnes,” he says. “A higher recycled content ingot will require a consistent volume of scrap to be sourced, processed and separated to feed the production of several ingots. Progress to a full-sized trial would only happen once there is a high confidence in the source material, established through separate small batch laboratory melt trials.”


This is part of our circular economy briefing. See also:

Who's ahead on the curve

Cities push collaboration to close the loop

Timberland to scale fabric made from Haiti plastic waste

The alchemist


Main image credit: Jaguar Land Rover

circular economy  rare earth metals  aluminium  ELVs  recycled plastics  recycling 

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