New model maps copper lifecycles in the EU


Demand for copper is increasing worldwide, which is why questions of availability and recycling are becoming increasingly urgent. With a model that enables detailed statements on copper circulation in the EU as well as on the use and recycling of copper, Fraunhofer ISI makes an important contribution to the recording of copper flows in Europe. The knowledge about this is not only important for the copper processing industry, but also represents an important basis for the future development of a sustainable industrial and raw materials policy.

The increasing global demand for copper can be illustrated by the example of electromobility: If the share of electric cars increases significantly over the next ten years, copper demand in this area alone could rise nine times as the raw material is used in electric motors and batteries. The situation is similar in the area of “consumer electronics“, such as smartphones.

Against this backdrop, data on global copper flows are important to ensure the supply of copper and recovery from old products. So far, however, the data are only available for individual years and rarely for recycling. The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI has addressed this problem and developed a simulation model that captures the copper flows in the EU between 1990 and 2014 and can make statements about the respective figures on the use, fate and recycling of copper for each individual year.

The copper material flow model uses available data on mining and production to calculate the circulation rates in the EU. For example, for 2014 it accounts for approximately 850 thousand tonnes of copper from European mining, which together with about 1.1 million tonnes in imported concentrates was processed into metal. In total, about 4.3 million tonnes of semi-finished copper products were produced in the EU. The difference stems from metal imports (approximately 0.5 million tonnes) and copper recycling from production waste and end-of-life products (approximately 1.9 million tonnes in total). Compared to 1999, the model shows a near doubling in the recovery of copper from end-of-life products, which underlines the increasing availability of copper-containing end-of-life products, as well as the extensive recycling efforts in the EU.

The simulation model also quantifies further recycling potential through recycling rates. For example, the end-of-life recycling rate, which results from the ratio of recycled copper to the amount of copper in disposed end-of-life products, was around 65% in 2014. This means that approximately 1.6 million tonnes of copper could be collected from old scrap and pre-treated for metal recovery. This copper scrap was reused in Europe and exported to non-European countries. Marcel Soulier, who co-developed the copper material flow model at Fraunhofer ISI, sees Europe on the right track: “Overall, Europe is doing very well in terms of copper recovery in a global comparison. However, this also means that 35 percent or 0.9 million metric tonnes were either lost or left unaccounted for.“

Dr. Luis A. Tercero Espinoza, who heads the research area “Material and Raw Materials“ at Fraunhofer ISI and has also participated in the EU copper flow model, once again summarizes its advantages: “The simulation model allows us to map copper flows in the EU much more precisely than before and track their development. It provides important information on the lifecycle of the raw material, from its extraction to further processing and disposal. For example, the model found that for the period from 2005 to 2014, slightly more than 50 percent of copper demand in Europe is covered by recycling new and old scrap, while the global value is only about one third.“ According to Tercero Espinoza, this value could be further increased if the global recycling efforts were to intensify in the future and companies were to recognize the increasing importance of recycling even more strongly.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.