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Downcycling in automobile recycling process: A thermodynamic assessment

Ortego, Abel, Valero, Alicia, Valero, Antonio, Iglesias, Marta
Resources, conservation, and recycling 2018 v.136 pp. 24-32
European Union, aluminum, automobiles, case studies, compliance, copper, electronic equipment, energy, landfills, mechanical methods, minerals, models, recycling, sensors (equipment), steel, temperature, thermodynamics, zinc
Current metal recycling techniques for end-of-life vehicles (ELV) are based on mechanical treatments to mainly recover steel, aluminum, copper, and zinc alloys. Such techniques facilitate compliance with the ELV European Directive (2000/53/EC) target of achieving recyclability quotes of up to 85%. However, a vehicle can use more than 60 metals, some of them considered critical by international institutions, which end up downcycled as part of alloys or ultimately in landfills. This paper undertakes an assessment of the downcycling degree of minor metals in conventional vehicles using a SEAT Leon III model as a case study. Downcycling is assessed from a thermodynamic point of view using thermodynamic rarity, an indicator that is used as a weighting factor for the metals used in the car. The thermodynamic rarity of metals is a function of the quality of the minerals from which they stem, considering their relative abundance in Nature and the energy intensity required to extract and process them. The results demonstrated that, even if the quantity of downcycled metals only represents 4.5% of the total metal weight of the vehicle, in rarity terms, this figure increases to approximately 27%. This indicates that an important portion of high-quality metals becomes functionally lost. The most downcycled vehicle subsystems are in order: (1) accessories, (2) electrical and electronic equipment, (3) exhaust system, and (4) engine. Further, the most downcycled parts are: speed sensor, control unit, antenna amplifier, airbag circuit, temperature and rain sensors, front pipe, particle filter, and turbo parts.