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IERC: Importance of recycling industry will increase dramatically

Mr Lox, sustainable mobility aims to reduce the consumption of resources. Will this make the mobility sector less interesting for the recycling industry because fewer metals will be needed in the future?

Sustainable mobility aims to reduce the environmental and social impact of mobility, by using several approaches. The switch away from powertrains based upon internal combustion engines will reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, that is clear. But the increased use of electrified powertrains will lead to an increased use of some non-ferrous metals such as Nickel, Cobalt and Copper, just to name a few that play a key role in the traction batteries. We also have a recycling process in place for the recycling of the batteries. This closed loop approach is an inherent part of the transition towards electrified mobility. As such, the importance of the recycling industry will increase dramatically.

Which other metals could benefit from the trend towards sustainable mobility and which not?

The non-ferrous metals that are used in traction batteries will benefit clearly from the trend towards sustainable mobility, these are for the current generations of Li-ion battery technology mainly Nickel, Cobalt, Copper. The advent of fuel cells will have a positive effect on the need for some precious metals, especially Platinum.

How will sustainable mobility affect the emergence of e-waste?

Both the traction batteries as well as the fuel cells are complex systems that need elaborated electronic system management devices, so I expect that there will be more e-waste generated. And if we further move towards autonomous driving vehicles, which is a next level of sustainable mobility, even more e-waste may result from the many sensors and electronic vehicle management devices.

Sustainable mobility also includes car sharing. Will the automotive market of the future only be a fraction of today’s market in terms of unit numbers?

Indeed, car sharing will be one of the many options in the portfolio of solutions to move to more sustainable mobility. But we do not expect that this will lead to a drastic reduction of today’s unit numbers sales of cars for the following reason. Today a car is typically used for driving only around 10 % of the time, for the rest it is standing somewhere. This results in the fact that today’s car lifetime is above 15 years. But if a car is used more intensively, because it is part of a car sharing scheme, then it will reach its end of functional life much earlier, thus will need to be replaced by a new vehicle earlier and will need to be recycled. So, while less people will buy a car – because of the sharing – these cars will need to be replaced more frequently – because of the sharing – and so a new balance will be found.

Umicore’s business areas also include the reprocessing of catalytic converters. How long will this business still play a role?

Our recycling business is a global one, and the shift towards more electrified mobility is for the time being mainly happening in a few regions of the world. So, powertrains with internal combustion engines will continue to exist for many years in important parts of the world. And even in the European Union, which has plans to ban the sale of powertrains that include internal combustion engines – thus the ones that need catalytic converters and catalyzed filters – by 2035-2050, we still have to add a car lifetime of 15-20 years by then.