RECOVAS: Influencing the design of products for reuse and recycling

3 min read

RECOVAS is a ground-breaking project which is part funded by the government’s Advanced Propulsion Centre, looks to create a new circular end-of-life supply chain for the electric vehicle industry. Alexander Thompson, Innovation Project Manager, EMR, explains how it also aims to change battery design, down to the level of joining technologies such as adhesives.

As businesses face up to the challenge of making their operations more sustainable, it is becoming increasingly important for different industries to collaborate.

For recyclers such as EMR, this means working more closely than ever with product manufacturers, alongside other supply chain partners, to ensure that everything from cars to building materials are designed with end-of-life recycling or re-use in mind.

More challenging, however, is the fact many manufacturers have understandably developed an ingrained culture that fiercely protects intellectual property and the product innovations which help them stay ahead of the market.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the automotive industry. However, this is an area that one of EMR’s exciting collaborative initiatives is taking place.

RECOVAS, a ground-breaking project which is part funded by the government’s Advanced Propulsion Centre, looks to create a new circular end-of-life supply chain for the electric vehicle industry. The partnership brings together Bentley Motors, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover, alongside the University of Warwick, the Health and Safety Executive, the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, Autocraft and Connected Energy.

The project aims to develop the UK’s first commercial scale recycling facility for automotive battery packs. Under current EU law and also post Brexit, manufacturers retain responsibility for the safe disposal of electric car batteries. There are already 164,100 pure electric vehicles on Britain’s roads, with that number rising to 373,600 when plug-in hybrids are included. This project aims to provide a standardised and reliable route for recycling and repurposing lithium-ion car batteries at a scale that can cope with the expected sales of electric vehicles in the UK.

RECOVAS is creating a path for the re-manufacturing, re-use or recycling of the resource-rich batteries which are powering the transition to electric vehicles. Remanufacturing is the process of repairing and re-engineering existing batteries so they could potentially be used in new cars. Reuse involves giving batteries a second life in stationary storage to help balance the use of the electricity grid during peak use and optimise the use of renewable energy and other applications. The new supply chain will help all partners to triage batteries when they arrive at approved end-of-life vehicle treatment facilities across the UK for either remanufacturing, reuse or – where this is not possible – recycling.

The project started in January 2021 and will run for three years, by which time the partners expect the circular supply chain to be operating commercially.

Now, what began as a research project has now become a reality. EMR recently signed a commercial agreement with BMW to process the carmaker’s warranty failures and production prototype scrap batteries.

The benefits of working closely with leading car manufacturers extends beyond the scope of this single project, however. By building relationships between their design teams and EMR’s engineers, we have begun to see more proactive discussions about how different parts of the supply chain can work together more effectively.

One example is the way in which glues are used in many battery packs to hold components together. While glues have been chosen for good engineering reasons, related to improving reliability and resistance to vibration, these design choices can make it significantly harder, and more expensive, for recyclers to separate recyclable materials at the vehicle’s end of life.

Thanks to our collaboration on projects such as RECOVAS, EMR is starting to play a bigger role in the development of new design guidelines which will make end-of-life processing more efficient.

Yet, realistically, the cars which are in prototype stage now won’t reach end-of-life for at least 15 years, making this a long-term project.

Fortunately, by collaborating more closely, there are also ‘quick wins’ that will make a big difference to the recycling of vehicles far sooner. This includes providing access for recyclers to the sophisticated on-board computer systems that control the modern electric vehicle batteries, records their behaviour and enables drivers, and recyclers, to communicate with them. These systems currently require very complex software to operate, but EMR is working with manufacturers to enable external parties gain access to these computers to allow more efficient re-use and recycling at end of life.

These tangible changes to the UK’s vehicle supply chain are going to play a vital role in helping the automotive industry become more sustainable and ensure that consumers have the confidence that the next car they drive really does create a more positive environmental impact.

This work highlights the profound benefits that can arise when EMR works closely with manufacturers and suppliers to drive innovation and sustainable change.