Tech Insights

Reclaiming Rare Metals by Repurposing Used EV Motors

January 08, 2024 by Jake Hertz

The REASSERT project from Fraunhofer Institute aims to create a more circular economy for used electric vehicle motors.

The demand for electric vehicles (EVs) is leading to concerns about the lifecycle of electric motors. EV motors have intricate assemblies and rely on rare earth metals, which presents sourcing and recycling challenges.

 

Electric vehicle motor.

Electric vehicle motor. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock

 

To help establish a circular economy for electric motors, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA have initiated the REASSERT project. The project addresses the challenges facing EV electric motor sustainability and explains the project's goals.

 

Electric Motor Sustainability

The transition to electric mobility involves an increasing reliance on electric motors, which contain valuable and scarce materials like copper and rare earth metals

Unfortunately, the conventional end-of-life treatment for these motors involves recycling methods that often lead to loss of material quality, rendering them unsuitable for reuse in motor applications. In fact, the worldwide recycling rate for rare earth materials in motors is less than 3%, despite these materials constituting 40–60% of the costs of a permanent magnet motor. This practice leads to a waste of precious resources and negates the environmental benefits of electric vehicles.

 

Electric vehicles contribute to a critical need for rare metals.

Electric vehicles contribute to a critical need for rare metals. Image used courtesy of Department of Energy

 

For this reason, many stakeholders want to establish a more circular economy around the electric motor, enabling a way to reduce waste and material needs.

 

The REASSERT Project

Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA researchers have initiated the REASSERT project, which focuses on repairing, remanufacturing, and reusing electric motors to develop innovative methods for extending the lifespan of these motors. The project, funded by the European Union, consists of collaborations with many industry leaders.

REASSERT involves a comprehensive process chain encompassing steps from inbound inspection and motor classification to component diagnosis, demagnetization, remanufacturing, and end-of-line functionality testing. Each stage is meticulously designed, with specific demonstrator and test rigs, to ensure the motor's viability for reuse or remanufacturing.

A key innovation of the REASSERT project is the development of an AI decision-making tool. This tool uses data from the motor's digital twin to select the most appropriate value retention strategy. The approach enhances the efficiency of the process while also ensuring that each motor is evaluated and treated in a manner that optimizes its lifespan and resource use.

Importantly, the knowledge and techniques developed in the REASSERT project apply to the design of future motors. The project aims to create a prototype motor specifically designed for the circular economy that can be easily disassembled and subjected to the various value preservation strategies developed in the project.

 

Aiming for a Circular Economy

As the demand for electric motors grows steadily, at almost 7% each year, questions surrounding their sustainability arise. Through the REASSERT project, researchers hope to solve these challenges by recycling, reusing, and repurposing electric motors and designing prototypes better suited to a circular economy.