The new aluminum recycling technology that can boost Europe’s electricity industry

The EU market for electric cars is growing, but over-reliance on imports from outside the EU and rising costs could slow it down. To support its electric car industry, experts in the EU are looking at how to recycle scrap metal such as aluminum as part of a circular economy.

Anna E. Frank contributed to this report.

Europe’s aluminum market is under pressure. In March 2023, the European Commission launched Act on critical raw materials to address the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent energy crisis Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Aluminum is the most important among these critical raw materials (CRMs) because it is important to build the light weight of the continent electric vehicles.

Demand is increasing

Demand for aluminum is also increasing. In 2021, the EU already consumed approx 7 million tons of aluminum and demand for it is likely to increase following global trends. The most recent Mobility consumer index shows that over 50% of consumers intend to buy electric or hybrid cars.

For Patrik Ragnarsson, director of mobility and strategic projects at European aluminumthe voice of the European aluminum industry,

“Gross demand for aluminum is expected to grow by almost 2 million tonnes between now and 2030. That’s a big change that the industry needs to be prepared for. And hopefully most of this will come from European production, which is more sustainable than imports from other countries regions.”

Development of car components in aluminium

He was speaking at a recent seminar ‘The Circular Metal for Future Mobility’ held last month as part of the EU-funded SALEM project. Their goal is to pioneer innovative aluminum alloys tailored to the automotive industry by developing prototypes for automotive components. The seminar brought together experts to discuss their research developments in aluminum and advanced materials.

Fortunately, aluminum is almost 100% recyclable and requires only 5% of the energy required to produce the metal from the base of bauxite ore. However, scientists are well aware of the challenges of recycling aluminum in the automotive industry. Research is needed into new alloys, for example using the inevitable impurities that can accumulate in recycled aluminium, such as iron or magnesium. Their mechanical properties, like their use, must be tested, explained SALEMA coordinator Manel da Silva López Eurecat technology center in Catalonia.

“SALEMA develops a non-CRM-dependent aluminum ecosystem by replacing the elements considered as critical raw materials or by reducing their quantity in aluminum alloys and by harvesting these CRM elements from the scrap already in Europe. ”

But as is often the case in life, what looks simple on paper can be challenging in practice. Products must be redesigned to allow reuse of components, development of new materials and better implementation of recycling strategy. While Europe’s recycling industry is moving towards a circular model, it also faces a relatively low overall recycling rate at 46%, although it is steadily increasing.

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The challenges of recycling aluminium

Before recycling, the scrap must go through a sorting process to detect potential impurities in the metal, including elements such as iron, silicon, copper and magnesium. The main challenge for European aluminum recyclers lies in consistently producing aluminum of high quality and purity. Only those recyclers who are able to efficiently process the material and consistently deliver a high quality aluminum product can successfully market it to end customers.

At the seminar, the SALEMA project discussed its prototype high-tech sensors and scanners for aluminum scrap. As scrap is fed on one conveyor belt, these sensors and scanners can collect information about its size, shape and chemical composition. This information is then processed by AI to predict the object’s properties or commodity category. Robots can then sort the pieces of scrap into different categories.

Finding alternatives will also prove crucial. Reducing weight is a goal for Fatigue4Light project. The teams are developing new tests and simulation methods to estimate the fatigue life of vehicle chassis components and select optimal materials. The team investigated the mechanical and environmental performance of different types of steel, aluminum and various hybrid materials. For Lucia Barbu, research assistant at CIMNEInternational Center for Numerical Methods in Engineering:

“I would say that a hybrid component involving aluminum was the best in terms of weight savings. We managed to reduce the weight of the component by about 40%.”

Such a radical transformation of the aluminum industry will not be cheap or easy. Existing sorting technologies and infrastructure must be improved, while new ones must be developed. The main challenge will be to sort the aluminum scrap so that the desired aluminum quality can be achieved through recycling. This task is made even more complex by each application and each manufacturer requiring different aluminum alloys.

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The possibility of nanoparticle alloys

Fortunately, recycled aluminum can also benefit from nanoparticle alloys with higher strength and stiffness. This is the purpose of FLAMINGo project. According to project representative Alvise Bianchin from MBN Nanomateriala,

“FLAMINGo aims to provide the automotive industry with a broader portfolio of sustainable materials,” “By using nanoparticles, we can improve the strength of alloys and reduce the use of other critical raw materials.”

The dynamic synergy between two transformative sectors – electric vehicles and the aluminum recycling industry – sets the course for a greener, cleaner and more sustainable future. Christian Leroy, from European Aluminium, believes

“There are opportunities especially in the automotive sector, but we have to stay innovative. And I guess these projects show some good ideas and some ways to be more innovative for aluminum.”

As Europe shifts its focus towards recycling in response to the growth of the electricity market, the continent has an opportunity to reduce its carbon footprint and over-reliance on critical resource imports. The commitment to produce first-class materials and products not only reduces costs for companies and consumers, but also emphasizes a more environmentally conscious approach.