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KIT and Audi are working on recycling methods for automotive plastics

Closed cycle for plastics from automotive engineering: waste from engineering plastics is processed into pyrolysis oil that can be used for new components


KIT and Audi are working on recycling methods for automotive plastics feat four
With pyrolysis oil from mixed waste, the partners want to make the recycling of technical plastics in automotive engineering possible. (Photo: Markus Breig, KIT)

Numerous components in cars are made of plastics. They have high requirements in terms of safety, heat resistance and quality. Plastic components in cars that are subject to particularly intense stress can therefore only be manufactured from petroleum-based materials. Most of them cannot be recycled. While single-type plastics can often be mechanically recycled, recycling mixed plastic waste is a major challenge. The THINKTANK Industrial Resource Strategies at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) is therefore starting a pilot project for chemical recycling with Audi in order to return these mixed plastic fractions to a resource-saving cycle.

Professor Dieter Stapf, of the Institute for Technical Chemistry at KIT and involved in THINKTANK said:

“To date, it has not been possible to recycle automotive plastics for many components, which is why we are doing pioneering work here with Audi.” He added: “If we want to close the loops, then we have to develop suitable processes for this.” Chemical recycling is so far the only method with which it is possible to convert such mixed plastic waste back into products of new quality. This means that a wider range of plastics can be recovered, says Stapf. “Such closed material cycles save valuable resources because less primary material is required. This in turn saves energy and costs – and is good for the environment.”

The pilot project “Chemical recycling of plastics from automobile construction” is being carried out by the THINKTANK Industrial Resource Strategies, which the Baden-Württemberg state government set up at KIT together with industry and with the support of science.

Professor Thomas Hirth, of KIT for Innovation and International Affairs and spokesman for THINKTANK said:

“The responsible use of raw materials is the shared responsibility of business, science and politics. In THINKTANK we bundle all competencies in order to face this great challenge in the service of society and the environment.”

The Managing of the THINKTANKS, Dr Christian Kuehne commented:

“Chemical recycling can be a very important building block for comprehensive plastics recycling. That is what makes it so interesting for the automotive industry. The THINKTANK and Audi are jointly tackling a central topic of making automobiles more sustainable and environmentally friendly in the future, regardless of the drive . The holistic view of raw material cycles is the focus of the THINKTANKS.”

Audi is one of the first automobile manufacturers to test this recycling method in a pilot project with plastics from automobile production. Marco Philippi, of Procurement Strategy at Audi said:

“We want to establish intelligent cycles in our supply chains and use resources efficiently,” He added: “Chemical recycling has great potential for this: If plastic components can be manufactured from pyrolysis oil instead of crude oil without loss of quality, it would be possible to significantly increase the proportion of sustainably manufactured parts in the car. In the long term, this process can also play a role in end-of-life vehicle 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 THINKTANK at KIT as a partner, Audi initially wants to test the technical feasibility of chemical recycling and evaluate the process for economic efficiency and environmental impact. For this purpose, the company provides plastic components that are no longer required, such as fuel tanks, wheel covers or radiator grilles from Audi models, which are returning from the German dealer network, for example. These plastic components are processed into pyrolysis oil through chemical recycling. In the medium term, components made from pyrolysis oil can be reused in automobiles.

Pyrolysis process for more sustainable products

Research and technology development for a sustainable circular economy is 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 raw materials as possible,” says Stapf. The chemical recycling of plastic waste could make modern products more sustainable and avoid greenhouse gas emissions.

the THINKTANK Industrial Resource Strategies

The THINKTANK Industrial Resource Strategies is a joint initiative of politics and industry with the support of science. He advises politics and industry on a scientific basis in the central technological-strategic issues of resource efficiency, resource use and resource policy. The THINKTANK objectively collects data and facts, prepares them in an understandable manner and delivers results that are recognized by both politics and industry, and thus contributes significantly to fact-based decisions of all those involved. The THINKTANK was founded on January 9th, 2018 and is located at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). The THINKTANKS spokesman is Professor Thomas Hirth, for Innovation and International Affairs at KIT. For the operational management of the THINKTANK, the Managing Dr Christian Kühne is responsible.

The THINKTANK Industrial Resource Strategies is funded by the Ministry for the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector Baden-Württemberg.

Virtual event on chemical recycling

The virtual evening event “Highway or Holzweg – Chemical Recycling of Plastics” on 25th January 2021 at 6:00 pm from the Baden-Württemberg State Representation in Berlin offers a platform to discuss the opportunities and challenges of chemical recycling of plastics. The organizer is the Ministry for the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector.

Further information:

As “The Research University in the Helmholtz Association”, KIT creates and imparts knowledge for society and the environment. The aim is to make significant contributions to global challenges in the fields of energy, mobility and information. To this end, around 9,300 employees work together on a broad disciplinary basis in the natural, engineering, economic, humanities and social sciences. KIT prepares its 24,400 students for responsible tasks in society, business and science through a research-oriented university course. The innovation activity at KIT bridges the gap between knowledge and application for social benefit, economic prosperity and the preservation of our natural foundations of life.