Revolutionizing the Automotive Sector with TREASURE: A Deep Dive into Circularity


Revolutionizing the Automotive Sector with TREASURE: A Deep Dive into Circularity

In a recent virtual workshop on the automotive sector, titled *The recycling of automotive electronics: *
exploring legislative and standardization gaps in the context of TREASURE experience, leading experts discussed the groundbreaking project Treasure," its goals, objectives, and impact on fostering a circular economy. The workshop brought to light the rigorous systems within the industry to handle the processing, recycling, and disposal of vehicle electronic parts.

Funded under Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 101003587, and initiated on 1 June 2021, Treasure enters its final year. With its collaborative approach, the consortium comprises 15 diverse organizations, including academic institutions, resource centers, and industrial companies.

The project pushes boundaries by going beyond traditional recycling rates and looking at the recyclability of individual materials. This holistic view ensures that every material in a product, no matter how minor, influences its recyclability.

As the Treasure enters its concluding year, the automotive industry stands at the precipice of a transformation, with sustainability and circular economy at its forefront. The workshop highlighted the project’s goals and objectives and showcased the tangible tools and methodologies being developed to make these ambitions a reality. The future, it seems, is circular.

A Focus on Circular Economy in Automotive

At the heart of this initiative is the shift towards the circular economy within the automotive sector. The project primarily aims to guarantee sustainable use of raw materials, particularly those from car electronics.

Emphasizing the holistic approach, the workshop underscored the need to:

  • Implement circular economy principles in the automotive sector, improving vehicle life cycles and environmental performance.
  • Engage all stakeholders in the value chain, from manufacturers to end-of-life users and recyclers, ensuring comprehensive collaboration.
  • Co-design future vehicles based on feedback about current vehicles, ensuring sustainability.

Key Goals and Objectives

Three pivotal goals were highlighted during the discussion:

  • Design Assistance: Helping car part suppliers and manufacturers focus on product design, keeping circularity in mind.
  • Assessment Methods: Establishing and utilizing sustainability and circularity assessment techniques to evaluate the automotive sector’s environmental, economic, and social aspects.
  • Practical Implementation: Demonstrating real-world benefits of circular economy adoption and creating digital tools to support these endeavors. This includes representing success stories, developing pilot plants dedicated to car electronics, and integrating technologies like digital twins to foster circularity.

Recycling Simulation and Industrial Flows in Automotive Electronics

Industry experts dove deep into the world of recycling simulations and the intricacies of industrial flows, explicitly relating to automotive electronics.

Recyclability analysis emphasizes the importance of a physics-based standard that rigorously addresses data issues. Central to this analysis is creating digital twins for the end-of-life stage of car electronic products.

A notable “Metal Wheel” visualization was introduced, illustrating the existing metallurgical recycling infrastructure. It emphasizes the varied processing routes for metals like iron, aluminum, titanium, copper, and nickel. This wheel acts as a guide, showcasing what materials can be recovered and what gets lost, helping to optimize recycling flow sheets.

At the heart of the discussion was an intricate flow sheet detailing the array of processes available in the industry to handle parts and products. These flow sheets, used to simulate recycling processes, are made up of intricate underlying flow sheets that further detail each specific process.

The workshop emphasized the importance of understanding the materials contained in the products. For example, while metallic aluminum can be efficiently recycled, aluminum oxide—often found in capacitors or as a plastic filler, is rendered unrecyclable. Thus, having comprehensive data on product composition is paramount.

A crucial part of assessing recyclability is the ability to refine broad data into more granular, detailed information. This transition from an ‘average’ perspective to a detailed view can determine the success of recycling initiatives.

Essentially, the goal is to build a ‘digital twin’ of the industry—a simulated version representing real-world processes and flows. Rather than merely gathering data from the industry, the modeling and simulation hinge on thermochemistry to provide a holistic understanding of recycling processes, energy dynamics, and mass balances.

The outcome of such detailed simulations yields a comprehensive flow sheet that highlights recovery rates for different elements. It shows how effectively certain materials can be recovered and recycled from various products. Moreover, by considering the quality of the recovered materials, it’s possible to gauge the true circularity of the recycling process.

A recycling index has been developed to streamline the evaluation of recycling success, similar to product energy labels. This index precisely categorizes recycling rates into closed-loop (high-quality recycling), open-loop (requiring further processing), and other categories.

Further discussions at the workshop touched upon the current legislative landscape surrounding automotive recycling. European legislation does not explicitly address car electronics as a significant source of critical raw materials. However, potential revisions to directives on end-of-life vehicles and electronic waste might soon shift the paradigm.

European Standards for Electronic Waste: An Exploration

Amidst the sprawling architecture of European legislature, Article 8 presents a clarion call to the European Standardization Organization. The directive is simple yet profound: craft standards for the treatment of waste that encompasses recovery, recycling, and preparation for reuse.

The European Parliament, in conjunction with the council, acknowledges the evolving nature of these standards, which echo the current technological zeitgeist. Subsequently, the commission endeavors to create, adapt, and refine 60 standards for treating electronic waste. This continuous quest for modernity hinges on the pressing need to align these norms with the ever-evolving state of the art.

Intriguingly, the commission differentiates between standards. While both are born from the same directive, there is a divergence in their weight and implication. The harmonized standards assume a presumption of conformity with the directive. However, others might find their roots in the Implemented Act. The primary role of these standards? To guide operators in meeting the stipulations of the directive on electronic waste.

The list of these technical standards is tripartite. From the nuances of marking to the intricate processes of waste collection, logistics, and treatment, each standard bears the intellectual fingerprint of the same technical committees. The committees, with a mission to mitigate the environmental footprints of electrotechnical products, are the unsung heroes in this vast bureaucratic tapestry.

One notable standard targets the auto industry. It offers a roadmap for car components, suppliers, and manufacturers to reduce environmental impact. This holistic approach, complemented by an analytical deep dive into other potential standards, paints a comprehensive picture of Europe’s electronic waste landscape.

A noteworthy point raised was the lack of a specific legislative framework tailored for the recovery of electronics from vehicles. While extant directives provide a semblance of guidance, there’s a lacuna that needs to be filled. The conversation underscored the importance of taking cues from other sectors, be it appliances or automotive, and the significance of harmonizing these insights.

Dissecting the Car of the Future: A Focus on Critical Materials and Disassembly

Researchers examined conventional vehicles and their components to understand better the challenges and opportunities presented by modern cars. In a detailed analysis of around 2,000 car parts, the study attempted to determine the most valuable components from a raw material standpoint, using thermodynamic reality as a parameter.

The study illuminated the significant role of electronics in contemporary cars. Instruments like the infotainment system, exterior mirrors with integrated lights, and additional brake lighting with LEDs are all now integral to vehicles and rich in valuable metals. For instance, the tantalum found in certain parts can account for up to 57% of its total value based on its thermodynamic reality.

These findings underscore the potential advantages of recycling and extracting these metals. The challenge lies in the disassembly process. Vehicles are designed primarily for efficient manufacturing, not necessarily for ease of taking apart. Yet, with an increasing global emphasis on sustainability, there’s a pressing need to rethink this approach.

In current industry practices, vehicles are typically directed to scrapyards, where not all valuable materials are extracted efficiently. Using the infotainment system as an example, traditional methods only recover about 50% of the thermodynamic value of its components. However, targeted recycling processes can extract up to 48% of its mineral capital.

A significant revelation from the study was the durability of certain parts. Even if a vehicle dies from an accident, many electronic components, such as infotainment systems or additional brake lighting, are likely to remain intact. This suggests that even in worst-case scenarios, there are opportunities to recycle or disassemble these components for valuable materials.

While most car parts are easily accessible and take about ten minutes to disassemble, there are exceptions. Exterior mirrors, for instance, require more time. Yet, most parts can be disassembled using standard tools, suggesting the potential for standardizing the disassembly process in the industry.

The researchers concluded by emphasizing the importance of rapid and cost-effective disassembly processes. They argue that as the transition to “green” vehicles intensifies, there’s a need to focus on the design with recycling in mind. This is particularly relevant for future green vehicles with electric engines containing materials like permanent magnets.

As the automotive industry shifts gears towards a more sustainable future, it’s clear that vehicle design will need to encompass not just aesthetics and functionality but also recyclability. The value locked within a car’s components may well dictate the industry’s sustainable journey forward.

Europe’s Push for Standardization in Raw Materials and Electronics: An Overview

As Europe grapples with the challenges of critical raw materials, the push for standardization has gained momentum, mirroring global sustainable development goals.

While Europe has several technical committees addressing materials like aluminum, copper, iron, and steel, only one standard specifically addresses critical raw materials. This standard stresses the importance of recycling these materials, a viewpoint supported by the European Commission.

Future prospects are bright. A new technical committee, hinging on a German proposal, is set to launch. Its ambit? The recycling, sustainability, and traceability of raw materials. This committee aims to leverage existing International Organization for Standardization (ISO) documents and synchronize Europe’s standards with international practices.

Yet, the standardization landscape is fragmented. Multiple committees have embarked on their sustainability initiatives. Recognizing the challenges this poses, the ISO set up a strategic advisory group on critical minerals two years ago. Their role is to analyze existing standardization work and identify gaps, especially concerning critical minerals.

Survey results, released last December by the ISO Technical Management, spotlighted critical minerals for standardization. Along with niobium in Europe, top of the list were ammonium, cobalt, chromium, and platinum group metals in Asia.

However, the real highlight comes from ISO’s focus on standards addressing industrial waste, end-of-life product measurement, information exchange, and supply chain traceability for rare earth elements. These standards weave sustainability concerns with end-of-life cycle challenges — a significant leap toward holistic sustainability.

The momentum doesn’t stop there. A recent French proposal could see the creation of a new technical committee focusing on specialty metals and minerals used predominantly in electric vehicles, batteries, and electronics. Meanwhile, Germany’s push aims at a standard emphasizing sustainable and traceable raw material criteria that align with industry best practices. It’s a comprehensive approach, encompassing everything from extraction to final product.

Europe is at a crucial juncture. Existing and proposed committees weave a tapestry of ambition and expertise. As Europe strives to solidify its leadership role in international standardization, the way forward seems clear: unified, sustainable, and traceable standards for raw materials and electronics.

The European directive, commonly called the “WEEE Directive,” has transformed the management of discarded electronic devices in member states.

Before the WEEE Directive’s establishment, Europe’s e-waste landscape was marked by lax regulation and negligible data. There were no significant producer responsibilities, leaving countries grappling with the rapidly growing mounds of discarded electronics without clear strategies or goals.

However, the introduction of the WEEE Directive redefined the landscape. One of its cardinal achievements was the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). EPR shifts the onus of managing the lifecycle of products from consumers and waste management authorities to the very entities that introduce these products to the market – the producers.

This responsibility isn’t merely theoretical. As defined by the directive, producers range from manufacturers to online sellers and importers. They must finance and organize product collection, treatment, and recycling. This seismic shift in responsibility ensures that products don’t merely become environmental liabilities once they’ve outlived their utility.

Moreover, the directive has clarified the categorization of e-waste. Gone are the days when industry sectors determined categories. Based on size and function, the new system is more intuitive and inclusive, covering both household and professional equipment.

Fast-forward twenty years from the directive’s inception, the results are tangible. Member states now boast over 90,000 registered producers and more than 200 compliance schemes. Clearing houses, accurate statistics, and market intelligence on e-waste have been established. These resources allow for more informed decision-making and efficient waste management strategies.

The directive has also set clear targets for collection and recycling. These targets are pivotal in ensuring that e-waste doesn’t end up in landfills or mishandled but rather is efficiently recycled, repurposed, or safely discarded.

However, managing e-waste isn’t without its challenges. While discarded electronics often contain valuable materials such as gold and silver, extracting these materials in a manner that’s both financially and technically feasible remains a significant hurdle. The presence of hazardous substances alongside precious metals further complicates the recycling process.

Tools like the forthcoming “rep tool” have been developed to address these complexities. This digital asset, set to launch later this year, aims to standardize e-waste management across member states.

The intricacies of recycling electronic components are not without challenges. A lively debate ensued on including artificial intelligence (AI) models for hypothetical scenarios within the framework. While AI offers efficiency and rapid solutions, concerns about training these models were raised about the carbon footprint. Drawing a comparison, a recent study from MIT was cited, which equated emissions from AI models to those produced by cars. This inevitably led to a broader dialogue on the environmental sustainability of integrating advanced technologies into the recycling process.

The discourse took another intriguing turn with standards mapping within the treasury project. The potential of using AI to provide quicker answers to recyclers and OEMs was discussed here. The role of AI in assessing the carbon footprint was also debated, given that the WEEE Directive is looking not only at recyclability but also at different Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) indicators.

There is a need for a more meticulous approach to recycling. While metals like iron and silver were discussed in-depth, the conversation pivoted to the role of plastics and organics in recycling. The importance of understanding the interaction between metals and plastics, particularly in the context of car electronics, became evident.

And how do plastics affect the recovery rates of metals? The answer underscored the complexity of recycling, especially when dealing with electronics that contain multiple materials. The discussion emphasized that the inclusion of certain elements could be detrimental to the recycling process, leading to unwanted byproducts or even compromising the quality of recovered materials.

As the session neared its end, the organizers hinted at preparing a survey to gain further insights. The aim is to explore the current framework’s efficiency and gauge the need for a standardized and harmonized approach to recycling electronics from vehicle components.

Overall, the discussion underscored the significance of understanding and evolving recycling processes, given the increasing integration of electronics in vehicles. The path forward demands a balance between technological advancements and sustainability, ensuring that innovation does not come at the expense of our environment.

1 Like

You mean the TREASURE project, I imagine…

1 Like