From scrap to sustainable sheet metal: a $ 2 million effort to overhaul automotive recycling
As we move towards a cleaner transportation industry, a new $ 2 million project at the University of Michigan aims to develop easier, more cost-effective ways to make recyclable lightweight auto sheet metal.
The project is a key effort as major automakers switch to light light trucks and move away from internal combustion engines for electric cars that require lighter components to increase vehicle range.
Dubbed “The Clean Sheet Project,” the effort aims to develop new design tools and establish best practices for material producers and automakers with an emphasis on recycling from start to finish. . Although the group initially focuses on energy-intensive aluminum and advanced high-strength steel automotive sheet metal, it could eventually include guidelines for all kinds of materials, including plastics, polymers and batteries. electric vehicles or EV.
âWe need to reduce the environmental impacts of vehicle production in the future, and one way to do that is to boost the production of these lightweight sheets from recycled materials,â said Daniel Cooper, assistant professor. of mechanical engineering at the UM which directs the project. “Not only will this reduce emissions from the automotive production process, but it will also help limit the destructive extraction of raw materials.”
Go beyond the downcycling of scrap
âWe already recycle a lot of the materials that go into these new vehicles, but we’re not doing it well,â Cooper said. “You have to put steel and aluminum in electric arc or gas furnaces, then pour new metal.”
Recycled metal products are not of high quality because today it is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain pure raw material to be melted. And in the United States, there is little demand for this contaminated scrap, so the materials are often shipped to other countries where low-wage workers sort them by hand.
Recyclers use mechanical shears to attempt to separate and stack the different metals to be sent separately to the furnaces. But vehicles contain many different metal alloys that get mixed up when broken, and aluminum car panels often have steel rivets that are difficult to remove even with magnets.
This task of separating metals is becoming more and more difficult. Electric vehicles, for example, use even more copper cables in their electronics. And recycled steel can crack during manufacturing if it contains as little as 0.1% copper. Typically, recycled metal ends up being used in places where performance requirements are low, such as aluminum castings in engine blocks and steel rebar.
âWe see huge opportunities for increased material reuse and recycling if vehicle design includes ease of disassembly, better material separation and industry wide generalization,â said George Luckey, director of stamping and alloy development at Ford Research and Advances Engineering.
Ford is one of several private financial partners involved in this effort.
âThe Clean Sheet Project will provide this information and we are excited to join the University of Michigan and other partners to participate,â said Luckey. “This work strongly supports Ford’s commitments to reduce CO2 emissions, develop a circular economy and a carbon neutral future.”
An aluminum opportunity
Two powerful factors suggest that the time has come to determine how to make more sustainable practices mainstream.
The first is that new electric vehicle manufacturing commitments regularly come from major automakers in 2021, and this trend is likely to continue. Earlier this month, UBS Investment Bank estimated that electric vehicles would account for 40% of all new car sales by the end of the decade. The second factor is that over the next few years, a wave of aluminum foil-intensive vehicles will reach end of life and head into junkyards, Cooper’s previous research has shown.
Aluminum has become one of the most popular EV materials thanks, in part, to its low density, which helps reduce vehicle weight.
âIt calls for reinventing how these high-value materials can be recycled or remade to produce new vehicles,â Cooper said. âAluminum is known to be difficult to recycle without losing performance, and you can see why some people get nervous about where we are going. If we switch to electric vehicles, it probably means even greater demand for high-quality aluminum and a loss of the internal combustion engine market which currently uses a lot of the low-quality recycled metal.
The integrated approach of the Clean Sheet project
Earlier efforts to make electric vehicle components more easily recyclable have had some success, but the lack of an integrated approach across the industry, from materials producers and recyclers to automakers and scrap converters, has hampered the effort.
âHopefully our methodology could provide a breakthrough at all levels,â Cooper said.
This methodology includes a computer modeling approach known as Integrated Computational Materials Engineering which will determine the extent to which mixed metals can be recycled. These models can help researchers discover new materials that are more recyclable and determine how more recycled materials can be used in high-quality components like aluminum bodies. Additional modeling will assess vehicle design options, such as the materials used and where they are used.
Researchers will also analyze new technologies for removing old vehicles and separating materials. The project will provide a new suite of designs for recycling tools and technology roadmaps for the entire industry.
The Clean Sheet team is currently running a cross-sector workshop on the design, production, manufacture and recycling of automotive sheet metal to learn from industry experts on opportunities to increase recycling of high quality sheet metal. .
About half of the funding for the project comes from the US Department of Energy’s REMADE Institute, a public-private partnership that promotes the adoption of sustainable technologies for industries. Besides Ford, additional financial partners include: Novelis, Institute of Scrap Metal Recycling Industries, Aluminum Association, Light Metals Consultants and Argonne National Laboratories.
Written by Makenzie Wireman