What the future is made of

Circular economy

Web special Fraunhofer magazine 3.2021

Raw materials are scarce. Time and again, shortages have forced companies to cut back on their production. The circular economy may be the solution − for far more than just the climate.

It takes around 25 kilograms of copper to produce a mid-range car with a combustion engine. Meanwhile, building an electronic vehicle may require as much as 80 kilograms or more. As demand increases, so do the costs. This summer, copper prices were 44 percent higher than at the start of 2020. Lithium was worse again, going up by 77 percent. Demand is growing − and so are the problems. Two thirds of German industrial companies are currently struggling with supply issues. According to a survey by the ifo Institute, the proportion of companies affected increased from 45 to 63.8 percent over April to July 2021 − the impact of the material shortage has hit the electronics and automo-tive industries particularly hard. Reusable materials are becoming an ever more valuable resource.

Now the German Mineral Resources Agency (DERA) has commissioned the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI and the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM to conduct its “Raw materials for emerging technologies” study for the third time. “Germany is particularly vulnerable as a high-tech hub, because it’s so dependent on imports of raw materials,” explains Fraunhofer IZM scientist Jana Rückschloss. “In the study, we are investigating how using new technology could change the demand for raw materials. What raw materials could become espe­cially important on the one hand and especially scarce on the other?”

Rückschloss concentrated on data centers, one of the 33 technol­ogies selected for the study due to their broad relevance for the mar­ket as a whole, with a particular focus on storage media like sol­id-state drives (SSDs), hard disk drives (HDDs) and magnetic tapes. “Platinum and ruthenium supplies in particular could become critical in the future. In 2018, world pro­duction of ruthenium amounted to 33 tons. However, in the worst-case scenario, we will use 592 tons in 2040, and that’s just for the hard disk drives − it doesn’t cover the demand from other technologies. Even in the most sustainable scenario, we would still need 33 tons,” says the researcher in a brief summary of her results. When the remaining 32 technologies examined in the study are taken into account, demand is predicted to increase for ruthenium, scandium, dysprosium, terbium, lithium, iridium, plat­inum and cobalt.

The circular economy: A ray of hope

criticality of rare earth metals

Rare earth metals

The shortage of rare-earth metals is impacting the electronics and automotive industries in particular. In the electronics sector, these elements are found in LEDs, lasers and displays, while electric vehicles use them pri­marily in batteries and magnets. However, rare-earth metals are not as rare as the name would imply. The prob­lem stems predominantly from dependency on the coun­tries that produce them, with around 80 percent of our rare-earth metals coming from China. To see the kind of complications this can lead to, we need only look to the drastic jump in prices ten years ago when Beijing imposed an export ban. That is why this dependency must be reduced, to minimize the chances of shortages.

“Germany is particularly vulnerable as a high-tech hub, because it’s so dependent on imports for raw materials.”

Jana Rückschloss, scientist at Fraunhofer IZM.

Raw materials that just fall from the sky? Not quite − they still need a little push. Dr. Alexander Hofmann of Fraunhofer UMSICHT is working on scalable solutions.

Generate new raw materials from old plastics

Plastic pellets

Manufacturers that depend on rare-earth metals are not  the only ones suffering from shortages and high prices  when it comes to raw materials. Producers of rubber and  plastic goods are also feeling the pinch, with the high  plastic pellet prices slowing down production for 79 percent  of manufacturers. These companies’ dependence on  oil-producing countries and their pricing policies constitutes  another strong argument for a circular plastics economy.  Additionally, it’s becoming more difficult to export  plastic waste, as various recipient countries like China are now refusing to dispose of plastics from Germany.

Innovative recycling process for building rubble

Building materials

New demand is also arising in other areas. The last thing a layperson would expect is a gypsum shortage − after all, we see this construction material everywhere. The German industry alone requires 10 million tons a year. However, 60 percent of this gypsum comes from coal-fired power plants that are set to close in 2040. Based on present requirements, that would mean an annual shortfall of 6 million tons of gypsum.

The sands are running out − even for construction sand. In Dubai, for example, there’s a major shortage of construction sand, because desert sand is not fit for purpose, and all their construction sand has to be imported from Australia.

Using a wet chemistry process, the Fraunhofer IBP researchers can remove the gypsum from the fine fraction in a cost-effective way.

“The method is relatively simple − and the interest in it is correspondingly high.”  

Dr. Volker Thome, Head of Department at Fraunhofer IBP.



Functional magnet recycling for sustainable e-mobility − FUNMAG

In this project, the Fraunhofer IWKS in Hanau is researching the creation of a property portfolio for recycled Nd-Fe-B high-performance permanent magnets. In the project, mixed waste magnet flows are transferred into new high-performance magnets using efficient recycling technologies. These will be installed in demonstrators, tested and subjected to a complete sustainability and cost analysis.


Sustainable Smart Mobile Devices Lifecycles through Advanced Re-design, Reliability, and Re-use and Remanufacturing Technologies

In the past, used electronics components were solely re-used in low-cost products, growing digitalization of our daily lives comes with numerous new product concepts, which could make perfect use of parts and components harvested from used smartphones and tablets. sustainablySMART demonstrates the feasibility of a ‘design for circular economy’ approach for more conventional mobile IT designs.


Large-scale demonstration of new circular economy value-chains based on the reuse of end-of-life fiber reinforced composites

Glass and carbon fiber-reinforced polymer composites (GFP and CFP) are increasingly used as structural materials in many manufacturing sectors like transport, construction and energy due to their better lightweight and corrosion resistance compared to metals. Composite recycling is a challenging task. Although mechanical grinding and pyrolysis reached a quite high TRL, landfilling of EoL composites is still widespread since no significant added value in the re-use and remanufacturing of composites is demonstrated.


From waste to raw material − green molecules for chemistry

The Fraunhofer lead project "Waste4Future" is making a decisive contribution to this transformation to Chemistry 4.0. Seven institutes of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft are pooling their expertise in this project to increase energy and resource efficiency in the use of plastics in particular. In the lead project, new possibilities are being created for recycling, from which high-quality starting materials are produced. The resulting solutions will make it possible to recycle the carbon contained in plastics. Instead of contributing to global warming in the form of CO2 or polluting the environment as plastic waste, it will be available as a "green" resource for the chemical industry.

ENSUBA − Removing sulfate from building rubble

Gypsum is found in walls, ceilings and floors of buildings, and in considerable quantities. Even today, gypsum makes up to ten percent of the building fabric in Germany; after all, the material is easy to work with. However, it also has a serious disadvantage in terms of recycling. This is because gypsum is chemically speaking nothing other than calcium sulfate dihydrate - in other words, a sulfate. And this is precisely what causes problems when it comes to recycling building rubble.

Further information

Fraunhofer Cluster of Excellence Circular Plastics Economy CCPE

Recycling process for composite materials containing plastic

Valuable metals and rare earths can also be found in electronic waste, for example in LCD panels. However, the plastic-containing shredder residues are contaminated with numerous impurities such as flame retardants - they therefore end up in the waste incineration. Metals such as indium, gallium, palladium, silver and Co. are lost in the process. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Cluster of Excellence Circular Plastics Economy CCPE want to change that.

Fraunhofer Strategic Research Field Resource Efficiency and Climate Technologies

The world’s natural resources are limited. Yet they are being consumed at ever faster rates by a growing global population. This leads to increasing competition and rising prices, especially for resources such as oil, cobalt and rare earths. At the same time, the extraction of natural resources causes environmental damage such as the release of greenhouse gases, pollution of our air, water and soil, and a decline in biodiversity.