Numerous components in cars are made of plastics. High requirements for safety, heat resistance and quality apply to them. Plastic components that are subjected to particularly intensive stress can therefore only be made from petroleum-based materials up to now. These cannot usually be recycled. While single-variety plastics can often be recycled mechanically, recycling mixed plastic waste is a major challenge. The Industrial Resource Strategies think tank at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) is therefore starting a pilot project with Audi for chemical recycling in order to return these mixed plastic fractions to a resource-saving cycle.
Chemically recycle plastics
"Recycling automotive plastics has not been possible for many components so far, which is why we are doing pioneering work here with Audi," says Professor Dieter Stapf, head of the Institute for Technical Chemistry at KIT and involved in the think tank. "If we want to close the loops, we have to develop suitable processes for this purpose."Chemical recycling is so far the only method by which it is possible to convert such mixed plastic waste back into products of virgin quality. This would allow a wider range of plastics to be recovered, says Stapf. "Material cycles that are closed in this way save valuable resources because less primary material is needed. This in turn saves energy and costs – and is good for the environment" says Dr. Rebekka Volk of the Institute of Industrial Management. Industrial production of the KIT.
The pilot project "Chemical Recycling of Plastics from Automotive Engineering" is carried out by the think tank Industrial Resource Strategies, which was set up by the Baden-Württemberg state government together with industry and with the support of science at KIT. "The responsible use of raw materials is the joint responsibility of industry, science and politics. In the think tank, we bundle all competences to face this major challenge in the service of society and the environment," says Professor Thomas Hirth, KIT Vice President for Innovation and International Affairs and spokesman of the think tank.
Making automobiles more sustainable, regardless of the drive system
"Chemical recycling can form a very important building block for comprehensive plastics recycling. What makes it so interesting for the automotive industry. The think tank and Audi are jointly tackling a central issue of making cars more sustainable and environmentally friendly in the future, irrespective of the powertrain. The holistic view of raw material cycles is the focus of the think tank," says the think tank's managing director Dr. Christian Kühne.
Audi is one of the first automakers to test this recycling method in a pilot project with plastics from automotive production. "We want to establish intelligent cycles in our supply chains and use resources efficiently," says Marco Philippi, Head of Procurement Strategy at Audi. "If plastic components could be made from pyrolysis oil instead of petroleum without any loss of quality, it would be possible to significantly increase the proportion of sustainably produced parts in cars. In the long term, this process can also play a role in end-of-life vehicle recycling."
Testing the technical feasibility of chemical recycling
The pilot project "Chemical Recycling of Plastics from Automotive Engineering" aims to create intelligent cycles for plastics and to establish this method as a supplement to mechanical recycling and instead of energy recovery. With the KIT think tank as a partner, Audi first wants to test the technical feasibility of chemical recycling and evaluate the process for economic efficiency and environmental impact. The company provides plastic components that are no longer needed for this purpose, such as fuel tanks, wheel trims or radiator grilles from Audi models that are returned from the German dealer network, for example. These plastic components are processed into pyrolysis oil by chemical recycling. In the medium term, components made from pyrolysis oil can be reused in automobiles. If the technical feasibility can be proven, Audi intends to industrialize the process and then successively apply it to more and more parts.
Pyrolysis process for more sustainable products
Research and Technology Development for a Sustainable Circular Economy are a Core Topic at KIT. "We are systematically investigating what can be achieved with pyrolysis and how pyrolysis processes must be designed on a large scale so that waste can be recycled as far as possible as a raw material," says Stapf. Chemical recycling of plastic waste could thus make modern products more sustainable and avoid greenhouse gas emissions. The Industrial Resource Strategies Think Tank is a joint initiative of politics and industry. Industry with the support of science. It advises politicians and industry on a scientific basis on the central technological-strategic issues relating to resource efficiency, resource utilization and resource policy. The think tank objectively collects data and facts, prepares them in a comprehensible way and delivers results that are equally recognized by politics and industry, thus contributing significantly to fact-based decisions of all parties involved. It was founded in January 2018. Is located at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). Spokesman of the think tank is Professor Thomas Hirth, Vice President for Innovation and International Affairs of KIT. The operational management is the responsibility of the managing director Dr. Christian Kühne responsible.
The Industrial Resource Strategies Think Tank is funded by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry for the Environment, Climate and Energy Management.
Virtual event on chemical recycling
A platform to discuss the opportunities and challenges of chemical recycling of plastics will be provided by the virtual evening event "Highway or Wooden Path – Chemical Recycling of Plastics" on 25. January 2021 at 6:00 p.M. From the Baden-Württemberg State Representation in Berlin. Organized by the Ministry for the Environment, Climate and Energy Management. More information here.