Sustainability as an Imperative

In order to achieve the international climate targets that have been set – among other things, global warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees – almost all players in the automotive sector are stepping up their efforts to significantly reduce their carbon footprint with a wide range of measures.

The vehicle industry is increasingly relying on recycled materials. Photo: BMW

The countdown to the day when only purely electric cars or vehicles fueled with hydrogen, biofuels, or e-fuels will be allowed on the roads of this world has begun. Automobile manufacturers are aware of the challenges involved and have been expanding their product portfolios to include alternative drive solutions for years. But also in terms of manufacturing or material selection, as well as on many other levels, they’re intensely pursuing the goal of significantly reducing CO2 emissions along the supply chain. The wealth of examples is already almost inexhaustible and only a glimpse can be provided here.

Recycled materials and renewable raw materials are becoming more important

For example, starting in 2025, the BMW Group intends to source steel that generates up to 95 percent less CO2 emissions during its production and doesn’t require fossil resources such as coal. The company has reached an agreement with Swedish start-up H2 Green Steel, which uses hydrogen and exclusively green electricity from renewable sources for their steel production.

For example, starting in 2025, the BMW Group intends to source steel that generates up to 95 percent less CO2 emissions during its production and doesn’t require fossil resources such as coal. The company has reached an agreement with Swedish start-up H2 Green Steel, which uses hydrogen and exclusively green electricity from renewable sources for their steel production.

Thermoplastic polymers made from recycled materials are used for seals. Photo: baranozdemir/istockphoto

Mercedes-Benz already entered a cooperation with green thermoplastics manufacturer UBQ Materials in February 2020. The Israeli start-up recycles household waste and produces a new material from it – which is 100 percent recycled and 100 percent recyclable. This green thermoplastic could soon be used in series production to manufacture a lightweight cargo hold. Prototype construction and the production of bumpers for buses, cable ducts, and load carrier boxes could also be switched to CO2-neutral recyclate. A lot is happening in the area of materials in particular, which is demonstrated by the new system solutions, such as for the production of seals for window guides in the automotive sector, presented by US oil company ExxonMobil in January 2021. The thermoplastic polymers used are produced with recycled material and can serve as substitute for synthetic rubber. The production of batteries for electric vehicles also promises great future innovation potential. Chinese battery specialist CATL, for example, has announced a new cell chemistry for 2023 that not only works without cobalt and nickel, but also without lithium, relying instead on sodium. Cobalt, nickel, and lithium have long been the subject of criticism due to their scarcity and often questionable mining methods.

Greater sustainability is also one of tire manufacturer Michelin’s declared goals. The plan is to increase the proportion of organically produced or recycled materials in the company’s tires to 40 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. To this end, Michelin is conducting research with partner companies like Carbios and Pyrowave on high-tech recycling processes that give commercially available PET plastic or packaging waste a second life as tire components. They expect the first tires containing recycled plastic waste to roll off production lines as early as 2024.

With the “Conti GreenConcept”, Continental relies on recycled materials and renewable green raw materials in tire production. Photo: Lennart Preiss/Continental AG

The project promises considerable environmental benefits; after all, worldwide all tire manufacturers combined sell around 1.6 billion car tires every year. For their production, manufacturers process up to 800,000 metric tons of PET plastic fibers. Around four billion plastic bottles could thus be recycled annually into technical fibers for tires. Continental is also committed to rolling into a green future in the truest sense of the word: The tire manufacturer recently presented the “Conti GreenConcept” with a 17-percent share of recycled materials and 35-percent share of renewable raw materials at the IAA Mobility 2021 in Munich. The green materials used include natural rubber from dandelions, silicate from the ashes of rice husks, as well as vegetable oils and resins, all of which significantly reduce the proportion of crude oil-based materials.

Efforts to increase sustainability are continuing in the area of fuels. For example, British oil company BP has launched a project with Danish wind power producer Ørsted to build a 50-megawatt electrolyzer at BP’s refinery in Lingen, Germany, which could be supplied with electricity from Ørsted’s offshore wind farm. This could produce green hydrogen as early as 2024, replacing some of the fossil hydrogen production at the refinery while also serving to produce more sustainable fuels. Both avoid significant amounts of CO2 emissions. Over the entire project cycle of 20 years, that amount is estimated at around 1.6 million metric tons.

Circular economy remains a major challenge

​Just the few examples listed here show that circular economy in particular can make an important contribution to decarbonization. In its study “The Automotive Industry in the Era of Sustainability” published in 2020, the Capgemini Research Institute concludes that the introduction of circular economy, particularly on the part of the automotive industry, affects many key areas of sustainability – from the supply chain to recycling, procurement, and after-sales. The study surveyed more than 500 automotive company executives from nine countries and more than 300 sustainability experts. However, according to the study, automotive companies still have a long way to go before they fully benefit from circular economy. Only 32 percent of companies surveyed said they currently contribute to circular economy through their supply chain, with that figure expected to rise to approximately 50 percent in the next five years.

Table: Capgemini 2020

Prof. Stefan Reindl, Director of the Geislingen Institute for the Automotive Industry, sees major challenges in circular economy and decarbonization for almost all players in the automotive industry as well. “While companies have had costs and quality on their radar as key leverages in recent years, the issue of climate neutrality is now being added basically on top with regard to the entire value chain,” says Reindl. In his view, the trick for manufacturers worldwide lies especially in efficient monitoring and managing of suppliers in order to, on the one hand, achieve the climate targets set by legislators and, on the other hand, win over car buyers who are becoming “greener”. “In future, sustainability will be a decisive reason for buying,” predicts the automotive expert.

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