Business Critical: Understanding the material life cycle

Executive Summary:

Globally the automotive sector has embarked on its transition to become net zero with many of the OEMs committing to dates for their entirety of business by 2050. However, this net zero ambition is not restricted to one sector or one region of the world, but it is something governments are internationally striving for. To deliver on this commitment internationally and regionally there needs to be stronger collaboration, agreements, and frameworks on how to deliver the right solutions for our future generations.

To develop these solutions, products need to become more sustainable which means that organisations need to become educated on the origination of the materials they are using. Better data on the impact on the extraction process through to the manufacturing of our products. The last few decades have given the automotive sector a reasonable start on understanding the emissions that come from our in-use functioning of vehicles, but now is the time to think more about recycling, repurposing, and re-use of components and materials within these vehicles.

It is not just about the recycling of the materials, it is also about understanding that value, for example, how much energy might be required to do this recycling, remanufacturing, or re-use to get the parts ready to add value back into the sectors – is this viable?

To be successful in this mission a holistic view is needed from the outset with all inputs and outputs being considered from across the system.

 

The purpose of this report produced by the Advanced Propulsion Centre UK (APC) is to provide insight into how the sector needs to transition its product lifecycle thinking if the industry is going to deliver on its net zero targets. The first section of the report looks at what life cycle analysis means for the sector, highlighting some of the challenges that will need to be overcome. This will require businesses to apply common frameworks and tools which can help decisions to be made on material selection internationally.

The second section of the report then focusses on the challenge around batteries, the highest value system within an electric vehicle, and introduces the regulations that are being implemented and where the recycling opportunities are for the UK.

The final section of this report looks at this value chain to address how the sector can build a more circular and resilient supply chain for batteries. It is important to note that recycling, repurposing, and reuse is not just needed for the batteries but must be considered for all parts of the vehicle; further insight into these aspects will be released at a later date.

Batteries within electric vehicles are currently very costly in terms of manufacturing and transportation but at end of life more costs are incurred through collection and dismantling. In addition to this, safety risks make transport challenging, particularly for damaged batteries. Dismantling remains a manual and skilled task due to diversity of design. There is some great work in robotics, but to really gain advantage in using these technologies, improvements, and commonality to the standards on design and integration of batteries would greatly help reduce this cost This report provides an oversight about the battery recycling regulation coming into practice by the end of 2023. The introduction of this regulation is driving all parts of the supply chain to think about access to critical materials contained within the batteries.

Currently the UK is producing and exporting black mass, this means the high-value materials contained therein leave the UK. This highlights the need to retain the value of these materials with the end-of-life batteries (including black mass) which are typically shipped overseas, often to Asia, which only adds to the lifecycle embedded emissions impact of these products. The APC has developed this value chain to highlight the opportunity the UK has to retain that value. By developing work through the value chain, it will create a supply chain for battery manufacturing in the UK with a reduced lifecycle impact.

Recycling stocks are hard to forecast with current collection rates of key materials being very low or non-existent. In addition to this, over the years the design of vehicles has improved and there remains uncertainty with consumers around which technology they should have in their vehicles. This has led to vehicle lifetime getting longer and therefore having a big impact on being able to access some of these critical materials. These are all factors that will be further explored within this report and are critical to planning the scale-up of capacity for recycling facilities building on existing expertise and capability that the UK already has.

Recommendations:

The report highlights four key recommendations that need to be taken forward:

  • Supply chain collaboration to implement Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), prepare for future regulations, and agree standards and method.
  • Support smaller businesses with LCA skills
  • Recycling and Re-use regulation and permitting review
  • Education on emissions from raw materials versus recycled materials to aid decision-making on investment

Business Critical: Understanding the material life cycle

This report provides insights into how the automotive sector needs to transition its product lifecycle thinking if the industry is going to deliver on its net-zero targets.

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