A large number of components in automobiles are made from plastics; these have to meet exacting safety, heat-resistance and quality requirements. That is why, so far, only petroleum-based materials have been suitable for manufacturing plastic components in automobiles that are subjected to particularly intensive wear.
Such materials are not recyclable in most cases. Whereas plastics of the same type can often be mechanically recycled, recycling of mixed plastic waste poses a major challenge. Audi and the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology (KIT) are therefore launching a pilot project for chemical recycling as part of the “Industrial Resource Strategies” THINKTANK in order to feed such mixed plastic fractions back into a resource-conserving circular system.
We want to establish smart circular systems in our supply chains and make efficient use of resources. Chemical recycling has great potential for this: If plastic components can be produced from pyrolysis oil instead of petroleum, it would be possible to significantly increase the proportion of sustainably manufactured components in automobiles. In the long run, this method can also play a role in end-of-life vehicle recycling.—Marco Philippi, Senior Director Procurement Strategy
The “Chemical Recycling of Plastics in Automotive Engineering” pilot project targets the creation of smart circular systems for plastics and to establish this method as a complement to mechanical recycling and replacement of energetic recovery. Partnering with KIT, Audi intends to initially test the technical feasibility of chemical recycling and to evaluate the method in terms of its economy and environmental impacts.
These evaluations are performed at KIT by teams led by Professor Dieter Stapf (PhD) at the Institute for Technical Chemistry (ITC) and Dr. Rebekka Volk at the Institute for Industrial Production (IIP).
For this purpose, the company provides plastic components that are no longer needed, such as fuel tanks, wheel trim parts and radiator grills, from Audi models returning from the German dealership network, for example. These plastic components are processed into pyrolysis oil by chemical recycling.
The quality of this oil corresponds to that of petroleum products, and materials made from it are equally high-grade as new ones. In the medium run, components made from pyrolysis oil can be used again in automobiles.
So far, chemical recycling has been the only method that can be used to convert such mixed plastic waste into products equaling the quality of new ones. As a result, a wider range of plastics can be recovered. Such closed material loops have several advantages. They conserve valuable resources because less primary material is required. This, in turn, saves energy and costs—nd is beneficial to the environment. Audi is one of the first automobile manufacturers to test this recycling method in a pilot project with plastics from automobile production.
This project is conducted by the THINKTANK Industrial Resource Strategies which the Baden-Württemberg state government, together with industry and supported by academia, has established at KIT.
Audi has identified chemical recycling as an opportunity together with its suppliers as part of CO2 workshops. The objective of Audi’s CO2 program is to use resources as efficiently as possible and to reduce CO2 emissions in the upstream value chain, clearly focusing on materials that are either required in large quantities or entail particularly energy-intensive manufacturing processes.
A successful case in point is the Aluminium Closed Loop with which Audi and its suppliers managed to recover aluminum waste and improve it to new-product quality level, thus avoiding some 150,000 metric tons of CO2 on the environmental balance sheet just in 2019.
Audi is planning to gradually increase the proportion of secondary materials in its models. The most recent example is the utilization of PET in the Audi A3. PET is a plastic polymer that can be separated from other materials with which it may have been combined and is therefore easier to recycle. For the Audi A3, for example, three textile seat covers are available with a recycled material content of up to 89%. At the moment, the seat covers are not completely made of recyclable materials.
The challenge is the lower fabric, which is connected to the upper material with an adhesive. We are working on replacing this too with recyclable polyester. Our goal is to manufacture the seat cover completely from the same type of material so that it can be recycled. We’re not far from achieving this goal.—Ute Grönheim, who is responsible for textile materials development at Audi
Going forward, all textile seat covers are supposed to be made of recycled materials across all model ranges. If its technical feasibility can be demonstrated, Audi plans to industrialize the technology and then progressively apply it to more and more components.