When you think about car construction, you usually think of metal. Materials like steel, copper and aluminium give vehicles their shape. However, there is more to it than that: in one ton of car, more than 150 kilograms will be plastics. In the “SyKuRA” project (systematic recycling of plastics from end-of-life vehicles), the Volkswagen Group is working to make better use of plastic components from worn-out bumpers, seat cushions and seals, and to help protect the environment in the process.
Dr. Anja Pieper works in the Technical Development department as an expert in reutilisation technology and recycling. She is well aware of the challenges. Pieper: “When recycling end-of-life vehicles, the current focus is on separating the different metals. In contrast, you are left with a mixture of plastics, which is primarily recycled thermally at present. This is precisely what is being addressed by a new project, in which Volkswagen are joined by the Öko-Institut, the chemical company BASF, processing specialist SICON, and the Clausthal University of Technology. “We are developing technology in order to better exploit the opportunities available to improve the way we separate and recycle reusable materials from shredder residues,” says Pieper. There is a special focus on plastics.
“We want to better exploit the opportunities available to improve the way we separate and recycle reusable materials from shredder residues.”
This means that the work begins where mechanical recycling methods reach their limits. What cannot be recycled mechanically could go for chemical recycling in the future – for example, experts are talking about pyrolysis. “At temperatures of up to 800 degrees, the mixture of substances is separated into its base chemical products. Not a single carbon atom in the polymer remains attached to another one,” says Pieper. The benefit: the quality of the recycled material is just as high as that of plastics made from crude oil – without new raw materials having to be extracted or processed.
On the way to a climate-neutral company
The project is helping to make the Volkswagen Group a net-zero climate-neutral company by 2050. “Nowadays, added value largely follows a linear logic: extract, manufacture, consume, discard. The fact is that the resources on our planet are limited. This is why we are pursuing the vision of a holistic circular economy within the Group,” says Oliver Blume, CEO of Porsche and the Member of the Board of Management responsible for environmental protection.
“Resources on our planet are limited. This is why we are pursuing the vision of a holistic circular economy.”
The objective is to close material cycles and reintroduce used raw materials into new products after the end of a vehicle’s life. For this reason, when developing new cars, the experts at Volkswagen are already focussing on selecting recyclable materials and on a design that makes disassembly easier. Currently, when a car reaches the end of its life cycle, 85 percent of it can be recycled and 95 percent recovered.
With the new joint project, supported by the Federal Ministry of Research, these figures could increase, thanks to the improved recycling of plastics. And this is not just about physics and chemistry – data-driven Industry 4.0 methods will also help with the optimal management of material flows. Pieper: “We want to develop solutions that protect the environment and, at the same time, result in marketable products. Recycling only works sustainably if the recovery is economically and ecologically viable.”
go to zero
The Volkswagen Group is striving to minimise the environmental impact of all products and mobility solutions throughout the entire life cycle – from the acquisition of raw materials to the end of a vehicle’s life, when the materials used are to be recovered. The main focal points of the ‘go to zero’ environmental model are the fields of climate neutrality, conserving resources, air quality and environmental compliance. Find out more here.