U-M Project Looks at Cost-effective, Green Solutions for Recycling Car Metals

A $2 million project at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is exploring, easier, more cost-effective, and environmentally friendly avenues for making recyclable automotive sheet metals.
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scrap metal
U-M researchers are working on a $2 million project to turn scrap metal into recycled automotive sheet metals. // Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

A $2 million project at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor is exploring, easier, more cost-effective, and environmentally friendly avenues for making recyclable automotive sheet metals.

The Clean Sheet Project is expected to lead to new design tools and best practices for creating these metals, with an eye toward incorporating recycling and keeping the sheets lightweight. This initiative is expected to support a broader movement away from internal combustion engines toward electric vehicles, which are more environmentally friendly but also require lightweight components that increase vehicle range.

Energy-intensive aluminum and advanced high-strength steel automotive sheet metals are the current focus of the project, but there is the possibility it could expand to more car materials. The goal is for material producers and carmakers to adopt the project’s findings, leading to a greener production process that is also more cost-effective.

Many of the materials needed to make these metals are already being recycled, but there needs to be a more stringent process to ensure scrap metal can be reused, says Daniel Cooper, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at U-M who leads the project.

“We need to reduce the environmental impacts of vehicle production going forward, and one of the ways to do that is to boost the production of these lightweight sheet metals from recycled materials,” says Cooper. “Not only will that reduce emissions from the automotive production process, it will also help to limit destructive mining for raw materials.”

While many materials in new vehicles are recycled, the recycling process could be improved for better outcomes, Cooper adds. The recycled metal products aren’t high quality because it’s difficult to obtain pure source material to melt down. In the U.S., there is little demand for these contaminated scrap metals, so the materials are often shipped to other countries, where low-paid workers sort them by hand.

The task of separating metals is getting more difficult; electric vehicles use more copper wiring, and recycled steel can crack during manufacturing if it contains as little as 0.1 percent copper.

Recycled materials typically ending up in places with low performance requirements. Aluminum is particularly known for being difficult to recycle without a loss in performance quality, according to Cooper. The goal is to avoid this “downcycling” and be able to use recycled metals for more parts on electric vehicles.

This initiative comes at a unique time for the car industry. More car manufacturers are making commitments to moving toward more electric vehicle production, with more expected to join them in the coming months. And a new wave of a wave of aluminum-sheet intensive vehicles will make their way to junkyards, Cooper says, making this the right time to develop better recycling protocols so more metal can be reused. Aluminum is a popular material in electric vehicles because its low density keeps vehicle weight down.

“We see tremendous opportunity for increased material reuse and recycling if vehicle designs include ease of disassembly, improved material separation, and industrywide commonization,” says George Luckey, manager of stamping and alloy development at Ford Research and Advances Engineering. Ford is among several private funding partners involved in the effort.

Around half of the project’s funding comes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s REMADE Institute, a public-private partnership that promotes sustainable technology adoption for industries. Along with Ford, Novelis, The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, The Aluminum Association, Light Metal Consultants, and Argonne National Laboratories are among national funders providing the other half.

Necessary to a project like this one is an integrated approach, says Cooper. Previous efforts at making EV components more readily recyclable have seen some success but keeping parts of the supply chain and production out of the loop has lessened potential gains.

Methodology for this integrated approach includes computer modeling known as integrated computational materials engineering. This system determines how well mixed metals can be recycled and could help discover new materials that are better for recycling.

Modeling can also help find ways for more recycled materials to be used in cars and assess different options for vehicle designs. Researchers are also planning to use technology to separate materials from old vehicles. The project is also expecting to hold a workshop to share findings.

“Hopefully, our methodology could provide a breakthrough across the board,” Cooper says.

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