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Cars of tomorrow keep recyclers on their toes

The global fleet of automobiles has seen some interesting changes over the years. Some people refer to modern cars as computers on wheels. But it’s not just what’s inside our vehicles that is constantly evolving – their very structure is transforming before our eyes. What does that mean for car recyclers?

We’re not living in the age of self-driving cars – yet. Big investments have been announced by the likes of Tesla, Volvo, General Motors and Ford that may finally make this ambitious dream a reality. Of course, autonomous vehicles will incorporate even more sensors than the dozen or so we encounter today. Did you know that electronics account for, on average, 15% of the cost of a new vehicle? The overall price of components is likely to double in the next five years.

Faster, lighter, super-efficient

Leading automobile manufacturers are actively trying to minimise vehicle weight in a bid to realise fuel efficiency. This trend is already driving demand for lightweight materials and it will be more noticeable in the years to come. In fact, market analysts believe the automotive lightweight materials sector will be worth around US$ 245 billion (EUR 200 billion) by 2026.

For example, aluminium content in cars will go up by approximately 12% in the next five years – mostly doors and bonnets. Battery makers expect this to help offset the cost of electric vehicles.

The benefits speak for themselves. Firstly, producers argue that a 50% weight reduction of vehicle body and chassis can be achieved by simply replacing iron and steel components with lightweight materials, such as magnesium alloys, high strength steel, aluminium alloys, glass fibres, carbon fibres, and other polymer composites. Secondly, using lightweight materials – in combination with high efficiency engines – can save up to 19 billion litres of fuel by 2030, reports the US Department of Energy.

E-car peak still ahead

To date, the Asia Pacific region leads the way when it comes to automotive lightweight materials as it holds a market share of over 45%. E-mobility has really taken off in this part of the world, as it seems the uptake in electric cars and lightweight materials goes hand in hand. Both fit the circular economy mould that is reshaping the world around us.

Fun fact: the fastest Jaguar E-type racing car, known as ‘The Beast’, is made from a mix of aluminium, fibreglass and carbon fibre.

For consumers and businesses alike, electric cars are gradually becoming more commonplace, especially in Europe and North America. The worldwide automotive battery market is set to be worth EUR 61.8 billion in the next five years. But let’s face it: these vehicles generally come with a higher price tag. This has made hiring them a more attractive option.

Market analysts expect that the global e-car rental sector will be worth no less than EUR 12.3 billion by 2026. This once again cements battery recycling as a vital segment of the automotive industry.

Superior alloys

Another development in the automotive industry is that of the larger role of magnesium, with continued momentum in future. The presence of magnesium alloys is expected to grow by around 10% annually until 2026, primarily because they are known for their good fluidity and less susceptibility to hydrogen porosity. These characteristics give them an edge over other metals like aluminium and copper. Magnesium alloys are more easily welded compared to other cast alloys.

Meanwhile, researchers around the world are collaborating to come up with the best lightweight metals solution. The Indian Institute of Technology Madras, along with the University of North Texas and US Army Research Laboratory, have developed a powerful magnesium alloy they believe can replace steel and even aluminium in automotive and aerospace components. The international team is now fine-tuning the process to suit other metallic alloys to create a variety of materials with ‘superior performance’.

I’m curious to see what kind of cars will enter the market in the coming decade. More than anything, I am hopeful that recyclers will react with the same amount of flexibility and innovation as we’re seeing from the manufacturers.

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