From scrap to raw material: State-supported Car2Car project develops technologies to improve recycling of end-of-life vehicles

Consortium of science and industry led by the BMW Group is laying the foundations for a circular economy in automotive manufacturing. Wanted: Innovative dismantling and intelligent sorting methods to boost the recovery rate for aluminium, steel, glass, copper and plastic. BMW Group intends to raise proportion of secondary material in vehicle production to 50 per cent while making increasing use of post-consumer materials.

The BMW Group is heading up a new project with state funding that explores the circular economy in automotive manufacturing. The company is joining forces with representatives from the recycling industry, commodity processors and the world of science to work on ways of improving the quality of secondary raw materials obtained from recycling end-of-life vehicles. With €6.4 million-worth of support from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action in Germany under its “New Vehicle and System Technologies” funding guidelines, the Car2Car project focuses on the materials aluminium, steel, glass, copper and plastic. In future, innovative dismantling and automated sorting methods should allow far greater quantities of the resources recovered from end-of-life vehicles to be made suitable for use in the production of new cars than has so far been the case. This project also includes an end-to-end evaluation of both the ecological and economic impacts of closed-loop recycling of the materials being investigated.

The BMW Group has set itself the target of increasing the proportion of secondary materials in its brands’ new models from around 30 per cent at present to 50 per cent. To help achieve this, the recyclability of the materials used is already taken into account during the design process for new models. Rethinking how materials are recovered from vehicles at the end of their product life cycle is also of key importance. The raw materials obtained from recycling can only be used as part of a circular economy if they also satisfy the high standards of quality the BMW Group expects of materials for premium cars.

The BMW Group is supplying 500 end-of-life vehicles for the purposes of the project. A variety of models from its own portfolio – ranging from MINI to Rolls-Royce cars with combustion engines, plug-in hybrid systems and all-electric drive units – are undergoing recycling to produce a representative spectrum. Here, the consortium partners will be looking into potential ways of improving closed vehicle material flows. They are setting out to evaluate how limiting the flow of materials to vehicles affects the quality and purity of secondary raw materials.

Artificial intelligence as an enabler for an efficient circular economy. The Car2Car consortium is working out the optimum balance between the dismantling process and post-shredder technologies from a qualitative, economic and ecological perspective – in order to retain as much of the value initially invested in the manufacturing of a car as possible. Today’s recycling processes involve a high degree of manual effort and result in a loss of material purity, meaning they are only economically viable for a very small number of vehicle components. Car2Car aims to present sound recommendations for an innovative framework that will enable an efficient circular economy to deliver greater added value in future than is possible by following conventional, linear process chains.

Digital technology and artificial intelligence can be used to increasingly automate and speed up recycling processes that have been performed manually up to now. The dismantling process, for instance, can be partly or even highly automated with the help of robotics technology. The integration of systems for optical and AI-assisted detection and sorting of reusable materials in the post-shredder process brings about a significant improvement in the quality and purity of aluminium, steel, glass, copper and plastic materials.

In order to achieve this, the idea is to develop, among other things, sensor technology using AI-based materials detection and other spectroscopic methods (e.g. laser-induced plasma spectroscopy) that is capable of identifying different steel and aluminium alloys. In this way, it is possible to obtain raw materials with a far higher degree of purity. This increases the quantity of secondary raw materials suitable for the production of new cars, while also meaning that far less processing work is required to turn scrap into reusable raw materials. This applies to all materials.

BMW Group is actively involved in circular economy issues in a variety of ways. As lead partner in the Car2Car project and the only participating carmaker, the BMW Group is driving forward the transformation to a circular economy. “We are facing up to our responsibilities and taking a holistic approach as we search for concrete solutions regarding the efficient use of resources,” says Hilke Schaer, project manager at the BMW Group. “The interaction between players from the worlds of industry and science forms the basis for creating practical innovations within the Car2Car project that will lead to scalability potential for the future.”

The BMW Group is also heading up another consortium project entitled Future Sustainable Car Materials (FSCM). Under its lead, research institutes and companies are working together on innovative process routes and material concepts for sustainable use of secondary materials and for reducing the carbon footprint of raw materials such as steel and aluminium. The use of secondary aluminium is a prime example of how consistent use of recycled material can cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The BMW Group is also carrying out important groundwork when it comes to the actual recycling of vehicles at the end of their service life. The company is the only carmaker to run its own recycling centre, which has been in operation since 1994. Up to 10 000 vehicles a year are processed at the Recycling and Dismantling Centre in Unterschleißheim near Munich. As well as being applied internally, the findings and solutions that emerge from this process are also made accessible to all players in the recycling industry.