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In the transition to EVs, little interest in old tires, parts

Cars have long been a (misleading?) symbol of personal freedom. After WWII, the aspirational combo shown in movies and the first family TV series consisted of a suburban home and a car. The success of this commercial idea turned it into policy, and its consequences are pervasive. Most errands depend on cars in areas lacking density.

As Americans rely on personal transportation, cars must be properly maintained to avoid life disruption due to a lack of alternatives outside a handful of metropolitan areas across North America. No wonder that, on average, driving in the US is less safe than in any other wealthy country.

In about a week, I happened to reckon with things that are familiar to any adult living somewhere without a reliable, affordable, and safe public transportation network: cars require maintenance and, once in a while, people have to upgrade tires, oil and other liquids, perhaps lights.

Having a flat tire when your car has been warning you about constant pressure loss

I changed tires and oil in a matter of days and saw how the tires and oil replaced get momentarily stored away (in a pile at the dealer where you did the tire swap, in a liquid container for the specialized oil-changing places, pervasive —and affordable— across the US). I wondered what happened to used tires and oil and decided to check while I was waiting for work to finish.

Burning old tires

Old tires are mostly recycled, both at individual and industrial scale. According to the US Tire Manufacturers Association, 43% of all the tires recovered for scraps are burned to get tire-derived fuel (used mainly for kilns in cement manufacturing), 25% become material to make ground rubber, 8% are used for civil engineering projects, 17% go to landfills, and 8% are dedicated to other uses.

We recently posted a video documentary hosted by Juliano Lima, co-founder of a small company from Barcelona making artisanal shoes from, essentially, leftover products from Northeast Brazil, the poorest area of his native country. Along with his brother, the Limas located to potential problems in the area: old tires that, when filled with water, host mosquitoes that carry endemic diseases; and cowhides accumulated as a devalued by-product of the area’s meat industry.

Tires sit on landfills in the areas visited by Juliano Lima. Most OECD countries have more stringent environmental laws to avoid the accumulation of old tires sitting in the sun, trickling down their components into the soil and water sources.

This isn’t the case in Brazil. With the help of artisans from the area, Juliano Lima coordinates the work of transforming the best-used tires and cowhides he can find into the sourced material of his company’s artisanal shoes for soles and upper, respectively. In our video with him, Juliano walks us through the process, explaining we should see most industrial waste as an opportunity to at least create goods that aspire to create a transitional circular economy: as long as the car industry relies on petroleum-based rubber for tures, as long as the meat industry has a global demand, there will be old tires and cow skins as commodities holding a perceived marginal value well below its worth once reused.

But most old tires don’t end up becoming the sole of artisanal leather shoes made in Brazil and sold from Barcelona to anywhere else in the world. In the US, as in Europe or Japan, the response varies depending on regulations by State, though regulations require these and other wasted by-products of the car industry to be recycled into new products or derivatives and, when that’s not possible, to be disposed of with safety. Most times, people rely on car shops and similar services to take care of tires, used liquid, or changed parts. Few probably bother to check what happens with it all.

Zen and car maintenance

I went to a small shop for the tire change errand, eluding the advertised big place in my area. Why? The previous evening, I had a flat as I returned to the car from a store, I drove the vehicle to the closest open place, and they helped me right away: there was a big nail attached to the back right wheel, which had been given me pressure issues for weeks, if not months.

The person who attended me explained why he wasn’t surprised it had happened on the back wheel, and on a poorly inflated one for that matter: front tires go through things (like nails) and sometimes propel them to the back wheels; if the back wheels are worn out and slightly deflated, the odds of having a nail perforation multiply. It made sense.

I thanked him for the explanation and asked him how much. Nothing this time, he told me. I asked how he saw the wheels; they needed replacement, he said, but didn’t push a sale, plus it was over close time for them. So I did my part and returned the day after to replace the four wheels; they gave me a discount for the Yokohama wheels I wasn’t familiar with. A couple of days later, the car’s control panel warned about the low oil level and assured me it was time to change it anyway due to the miles driven (not by me, it’s a secondhand car) since the last oil change.

A nail got in the rear right tire (the one that lost more pressure after every pressure check)

The workers at the oil changing shop ensure the cars’ exhaust is off right away; I don’t blame them; they are breathing in the decently-ventilated structure during long hours. I made sure we were using 5W-30 oil, as recommended by the manufacturer, but of course, they already knew. I felt I was still a part, at least as a temporary customer, of a legacy industry transitioning to models that won’t need the same engine lubrication.

EV expansion and locals from two Indonesian islands

If there’s something reasonably simple and affordable to produce in EVs vs. combustion-engine models, it is the engine itself. In EVs, it’s not much more than a bunch of coils and a direct-drive turbine, small and unassuming, as efficient as a manmade commercial engine can be. There are fewer parts, less maintenance to be done, and less mathematical risk of breakdown: the engine doesn’t rely on gas-powered, controlled explosions holding momentum for the pistons to move as in legacy cars, but by turning electricity into rotary motion.

This quotidian exchange, though minuscule in the order of things, has to be multiplied by several million similar interactions happening every day. It brought me to think about the problem-turned-opportunity of old tires, old oil, and cars themselves. Electric cars will simplify some processes across supply chains and required maintenance services but will complexify others.

According to Pew Research, most Americans support incentives to promote electric vehicle sales. EVs improve local air quality right away, a special feat in dense cities, car-relying areas, and societies as a whole; however, the environmental impact of EVs is growing as fast as the world’s demand for the main raw materials needed to create the millions of batteries needed at a price as competitive as possible.

Demand for nickel is surging, and Indonesia is determined to become the world’s biggest Nickel producer to export to the main battery manufacturers. Hazardous waste from the refining process needed to extract nickel from other substances is already polluting water and fisheries crucial for local populations in the islands of North Maluku and Obira, but the Indonesian government is prioritizing the exponential growth of the new sector at all costs, giving a moratorium to such refineries, explains Washington Post correspondent Rebecca Tan.

Doing a better job recycling cars

During the long transition from combustion-engine vehicles to EVs, we’ll hear another less positive reality for a while: an important portion of the energy mix used to power EVs relies on the energy made with fossil fuel power generation technology, whereas the production and disposal of batteries is an energetic and environmental challenge on its own.

Lithium-ion batteries from dismantled cars will start filling battery-recycling facilities willing to recover metals like cobalt, lithium, and nickel. But batteries to recycle will start picking up in a decade or so, when the cars being sold now will approach their end-of-life cycle. Until then, car-recycling facilities will have room to transition from dismantling petrol cars to battery-powered ones.

By added value, the most strategic components in the transforming industry are battery production and microprocessors; a shortage of both during the pandemic affected production and deliveries for the whole industry across the world, making as evident as ever how integrated supply chains have become —and how dependent the world is on China —for steel, batteries, parts—, Taiwan —advanced microprocessors—, and to some extent South Korea and other countries in the region.

Got help but tires were worn out, cracked; decided to replace the four of them the next day

Soft power could turn into open conflict between the United States and China, as Taiwan’s TSMC struggles to provide the world with its advanced microchips. Many of the automotive industry’s strategic chip suppliers (NXP Semiconductor, STMicroelectronics) depend on TSMC proprietary technology to make most of their products.

As for battery production, the US is trying to kickstart a solid and profitable local industry, or at least rely on supply chains that don’t depend on Chinese suppliers, which is turning very difficult as manufacturers try to make the new cars as attractive and affordable as possible.

In parallel, nobody seems interested in innovating with new ways of turning the industry’s generated waste into useful things that eliminate or at least reduce their impact. The Economist reports on May 24 about new ways of putting old tires sitting in landfills to use beyond their use as recycled material for cushy embarkments and playgrounds, or more silent roads.

Making fuel out of old tires

Until now, energy recovery using tires meant burning them in an incinerator to generate electricity, “providing heat to cement kilns and other industrial processes,” but the method pollutes and adds emissions. A new method promises the benefits of generating energy with old tires by turning them first into low-carbon fuel known as TDO, tire-derived oil.

What shocks me isn’t the idea’s originality but its lack thereof —and the fact that, until now, nobody had tried turning used goods made of hydrocarbons (petroleum derivatives) into the energy used to run the vehicle industry (which worn out the tires, to begin with). One of the companies making fuel out of old tires is Wastefront, a company based in Oslo, Norway, building a recycling plant in Sunderland, England:

“In a couple of years, when the plant is fully operational, it will be able to turn 8m old tires into new products, including some 25,000 tonnes of a gooey black liquid called tire-derived oil (TDO).”

The process cannot defy the second law of thermodynamics: a type that is mainly made of hydrocarbons but cannot return to a liquid fuel state.

Instead, the tire needs to be deconstructed using an automated process that separates its three main components: the steel that braces the structure; the powdery substance that improves the tire’s durability; and rubber, which is a combination of natural rubber (from a tree source), and petroleum-derived synthetic rubber.

Once the steel bracing is removed, the rest of the material enters a process called pyrolysis, or exposing the material to high temperatures in a vacuum environment that accelerates its decomposition into hydrocarbon gases. The solid part left behind is “pure carbon black”:

“Once the drawn-off gas has cooled down, a proportion of it liquefies into TDO. The remaining gases, which include methane, are funneled back around to be burned, fuelling the reactor. This, says Vianney Valès, Wastefront’s boss, creates a closed-loop system that prevents emissions. The overall output of the process by weight is 40% TDO, 30% carbon black, 20% steel, and 10% gas.”

The carbon black substance is already used to make new tires, which could reduce the industry’s impact. As for TDO, its quality is similar to crude oil and is well-suited for the production of diesel, the main fuel used by the transportation industry. There are commercial EV trucks entering the market, but their use is still marginal.

How to improve the steel industry

Several major industries rely on steel for their activities, from heavy machinery to high-rise construction. On average, the automotive industry uses 900 kilograms of steel per vehicle, 40% of which goes to the body structure, panels, doors, and trunk closures; another 20-25% goes to the drivetrain (cast iron for the engine block —sometimes blended with an aluminum alloy— in combustion engines, and carbon steel for the wear-resistant gears in both EVs and legacy cars).

The automotive industry uses at least five types of steel: stainless steel, advanced high-strength; high-carbon; low-carbon; and galvanized. The transition to EVs won’t change fundamentally the need for steel by the car industry, which amounts to 12% of the global steel use (whereas the construction industry monopolizes about half of all steel produced worldwide).

New tires

Steel holds a smaller impact than other materials used in cars; however, the amount used makes its production and recycling strategic long-term—the steel industry experiments with new ways of producing more and better steel with less energy and impact. Until now, the main processes to pluck oxygen into iron-oxide ores to make steel creates CO2, and steelmaking accounts for about 9% of total manmade emissions (more than, for example, global concrete production).

The ultimate aspiration of steelmaking technicians is to create a process using only hydrogen, which would create water as the sole by-product, though this aspiration has turned out to be elusive. Instead of following up on legacy promises of what a green steel industry should consist of, Boston Metal’s CEO Tadeu Carneiro advocates for finding new ways of reducing steelmaking impact.

Electricity better than hydrogen

Boston Metal, The Economist explains, uses a new way of separating iron from its ore by using electrolysis, so instead of releasing CO2 or steam, their by-product is puree oxygen: not only harmless but valuable.

“Electrolytic separation of metals from their oxides is not new. Aluminum is made this way. But the process uses carbon electrodes, and the oxygen liberated at the anode reacts with this carbon to generate CO2. Boston Metal employs, instead, anodes made of chromium, iron, and a secret mix of other metals in an alloy that does not react with oxygen. The other electrode, the cathode, is the liquid metal itself.

“Between these electrodes, as in any form of electrolysis, sits an electrolyte. In this case it is a molten mixture of metal oxides into which the iron ore is dissolved. Passing a current through the mixture both heats it, keeping it molten, and splits the iron oxide into its component elements.”

“The new approach has other advantages. Direct use of hydrogen to create steel has to deal with a transitional solid state called “sponge iron” that is melted to make the final ore, whereas Boston Metal’s process “produces liquid iron directly.”

The goal, says Carneiro, isn’t a PR stunt to boost a company’s corporate image but creating a process that could compete in cost and effectivity with conventionally-made steel, “without needing the supporting bureaucracy of subsidies, tariffs and carbon taxes required for direct reduction by hydrogen.”

The car industry has wiggle room to improve its circular economy and lead the way towards better ways of producing more efficient (and safe) cars, from the reuse of wasted components to materials manufacturing and recycling: about 95% of a vehicle’s volume is recyclable, including most of its steel —metal scrapping—, plastic polymers, tires, and about 50% of its lubricating oil.

Among the biggest car recycling companies in the world, only two, Toyota and Volkswagen, are direct car manufacturers. There’s room to improve.