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Survey Shows Untapped Gold Mine is Being Lost from Europe’s Vehicle Fleet

Every year, huge amounts of scarce metals, including 20 tons of gold, are being lost from Europe’s urban mine of vehicles. The amount of valuable metals in vehicles is still increasing. Now, a database is being published that not only charts the metals but also enables recycling.

Twenty tonnes of gold is lost from Europe’s vehicle fleet each year. The quantities of critical and scarce metals in vehicles have risen dramatically in recent years, as shown by a unique survey of Europe’s urban mine. (Image credit: Empa)

Metals, such as lithium gold, and cobalt and lithium, are essential components of electronic gadgets, batteries, mobile phones, and vehicles. Simultaneously, Europe largely depends on metal imports, making some of these metals important for the EU.

These metals are required for the ongoing transition to greener technologies, such as electric cars, solar cells, LED lighting and wind power, so any supply risks are a strategic and economic problem for the EU. What’s more, these are finite resources that must be used in a sustainable way.

Maria Ljunggren Söderman, Researcher at Environmental Systems Analysis at Chalmers University of Technology

She is part of the comprehensive European research project called Prosum (Prospecting Secondary raw materials in the Urban mine and Mining wastes). Now, a new database called The Urban Mine Platform has been compiled by this project to address the issue. The Urban Mine Platform is a unique database that charts what is called the urban mine: the metals that are already in circulation and could possibly be recycled from electrical and electronic equipment and end-of-life vehicles.

Maria Ljunggren Söderman performed the survey of Europe’s vehicle fleet which included 260 million light-duty vehicles. She observed that the amounts of scarce and critical metals have increased significantly and that many new metals are also present in those vehicles.

This is mainly because we are constructing increasingly advanced vehicles, with a great deal of electronics, lightweight materials, and catalytic converters. The increase in the numbers of electric vehicles adds to this development, even though they so far represent a small proportion of the vehicle fleet.

Maria Ljunggren Söderman

Neodymium is one such example and is also one among the rare earth metals (REM). It has been predicted that by 2020, the active vehicle fleet will have almost 18,000 tons of neodymium, which is nine times the amount present in 2000.

Another example is gold. The researchers were amazed when they discovered that even vehicles contain large amounts of hidden gold. In 2015, an estimated 400 or so tons of gold were found in Europe’s vehicle flee, whilst the vehicles that left the fleet contained approximately 20 tons of gold, which was also not recycled. This means gold that is worth hundreds of millions of euros is simply wasted every year.  

Our calculation shows that that the quantity of gold in end-of-life vehicles is now in the same order of magnitude as the quantity in electrical and electronic scrap. This is an increase that cannot be ignored,” Ljunggren Söderman says.

Generally, only a small quantity of the scarce and critical metals in vehicles is recycled. However, the key challenge is that these metals are spread out in small proportions; for instance, in a new car, a gram or two of gold may be distributed over many tens of components.

However, while the EU has set clear stipulations to recycle precious metals in electronic and electrical equipment, such requirements do not apply to vehicles.

There are no requirements or incentives for recycling gold from vehicles, but there are clear economic values here that I don’t think people have realized the extent of,” she says.

Maria Ljunggren Söderman believes that her research findings will pave the way for such a change.

Automotive manufacturers and the recycling and material industries need to work together to ensure that something happens. It must be possible to do more than at present – after all, this has been achieved with electrical and electronic equipment,” she says.

Having said that, gold is a comparatively low-hanging fruit, and the prospects for recycling other critical and scarce metals are significantly less favorable – from both electrical and electronic equipment and vehicles. If we want to alter this, policy changes may be necessary.”

Maria Ljunggren Söderman will present the research findings at an expert meeting on climate change and material trends within the region of transport, on 8 March. The meet was organized by the IEA, the International Energy Agency of the OECD countries. She highlights that a change towards more recycling of critical and scare will considerably support the EU’s efforts to generate a more circular economy.

The critical and scarce metals in our products have increased substantially, and in most cases, we only use them once. This must be addressed, especially because these metals are required for many of the sustainable technological solutions that we currently have on the table,” she says.

More about: The database that charts Europe’s urban mine

  • In the international EU project Prosum (Prospecting Secondary raw materials in the Urban mine and Mining wastes), 17 parties from expert organizations, universities, and research institutes have collectively surveyed the amounts of scarce and critical metals that can be recycled from Europe’s electrical and electronic equipment, batteries, and vehicles. The EU’s Horizon 2020 research program has funded the project. Read the final report from Prosum.
  • The results are described in the database known as the Urban Mine Platform, which illustrates the route adopted by the metals from when they come into the market until they are disposed of as waste. The aim is to generate a knowledge base to lower the dependency on metal imports and tap the resources in end-of-life products in a more effective manner. Watch a film about the Urban Mine Platform.
  • Maria Ljunggren Söderman, Chalmers Researcher from the Division of Environmental Systems Analysis in the Department of Technology Management and Economics at Chalmers University of Technology, performed the survey of the vehicles in the project. Amund N. Løvik from Empa in Switzerland and Duncan Kushnir from Lund University also took part in the vehicle survey

More about: A few figures from the report

  • In the EU, Switzerland, and Norway, approximately 10 million tons of electronic and electrical equipment and 2 million tons of batteries are simply disposed of as waste every year, while as much as 14 million tons of vehicles leave the fleet.
  • On average, 250 kilograms of electrical and electronic equipment, almost 600 kilograms of vehicles, and 17 kilograms of batteries are owned by every individual in the EU.
  • Approximately 40 critical and scarce metals are present in a single smartphone, and these metals have a gold concentration that is 25 to 30 times higher than in the richest gold ores.
  • In 2015, the EU’s, Switzerland’s, and Norway’s vehicle fleets contained approximately 30 tons of gold in new vehicles that were introduced into the market, roughly 20 tons of gold in vehicles leaving the fleet, and approximately 400 tons of gold in vehicles in use.

More about: Critical and scarce metals

Geochemically scarce metals are charted by the Urban Mine Platform which means metals with a low occurrence in the Earth’s crust. The EU’s critical metals list also contains many of the metals, meaning that they are extremely important for Europe’s economy and that the risk of limited availability is also high, mostly due to the significant dependency on metal imports.

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