The circular economy is a necessity on the way to transport electrification

As the Finnish song goes: there is a woman behind all this – in this case, though, it is the United Nations (UN) Paris Agreement. Reaching the Paris Climate Agreement targets will require radical measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions, both nationally and on a global scale. One of the key solutions is the electrification of transport.

Switching to carbon-neutral or low-carbon traffic does not happen by itself, but only through the renewal of infrastructure, vehicles and other means of transport. These investments, in turn, are highly raw-material intensive.

The resource efficiency of battery and magnetic materials is a challenge

Battery and magnetic materials are at the heart of the megatrend of transport electrification. The range of battery materials varies depending on the battery type, but typical raw materials include graphite, lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese, while for magnetic materials they include neodymium, boron and dysprosium. Most of these materials are so-called critical raw materials, which means that they are mainly produced outside Europe. In this area, China is particularly dominant: it accounts for 69% of global graphite production and over 95% of neodymium and dysprosium production. In addition, China has a wealth of other important material resources: 20% of the world’s lithium reserves and 5% of manganese reserves are located in China. The mining industry needs energy, and in China, about 60% of energy is still produced by coal. So, we can justifiably ask: how green is electronic transport, if the key materials are produced by coal energy in China?

Especially in the case of rare earth metals (neodymium, dysprosium), ore enrichment is very energy intensive and generates a lot of other problematic side streams along with CO2 emissions. Improving the recycling of raw materials can significantly reduce the amount of energy bound to materials. However, recycling alone is not enough: processes that allow efficient circulation of materials must be environmentally and energy efficient, and substitute material alternatives must be developed alongside them.

For energy efficiency, it is also essential how the side streams generated in the production of the primary product can be utilised. At best, side streams serve as raw materials for other products. A good example of this is the refining of the mineral side streams of metal production into thermally insulating materials used in the process.

New tools for assessing the environmental impact of materials solutions

Increasing material efficiency requires a change in mindset. Instead of sub-optimisation, the environmental and cost impacts of the entire product lifecycle should be considered. The lifecycle covers the production and processing of raw materials, transportation from one stage to another, further processing into a product, use, and reuse (so-called second life) or recycling. It is of paramount importance for new technological breakthroughs, such as transport electrification, that the overall environmental impact of material solutions is made visible.

New tools help in decision-making: with the help of tools such as network LCA and on-line LCA [1], environmental impact and, in the future, costs can be considered over value chains and based on real-time process data. Lifecycle analysis also reveals the weak links in a product’s lifecycle impact. At present, second-life solutions for many products are in their infancy and the recycling rate of raw materials is very low, especially in the case of new technologies, such as transport electrification. On the other hand, new technologies that are just being matured enable the circular economy perspective to be considered at the design stage of products and manufacturing processes, where most of the environmental and cost impacts of the product lifecycle are set.

Solutions for the future from VTT

Resource sufficiency is one of the focus areas of VTT’s research. For non-renewable raw materials, such as key battery and magnetic materials, in order to increase resource efficiency, the whole circular economy solution palette must be introduced: lifecycle tools to demonstrate environmental impact, process optimisation to minimize environmental impacts (on-line LCA), the use of side streams as raw materials for new high-value-added products, and the development of substitute, greener functional materials. These are all areas where VTT has strong expertise and innovation capability and which we are constantly developing together with our partners.
Read more about our services for lifecycle solutions.

  1. https://modellingfactory.org/services#lca

Elina Huttunen-Saarivirta, Principal Scientist
elina.huttunen-saarivirta(a)vtt.fi

Tomi Lindroos, Research Team Leader, Project Manager
tomi.lindroos(a)vtt.fi

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