Circularity of critical raw materials in electric aviation

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Abstract

Components of novel propulsion systems in electric aviation contain materials defined as critical by the European Union: electric motors contain Rare Earth Elements neodymium and dysprosium, and state-of-the-art batteries materials like lithium and cobalt. Such critical raw materials have high supply risks but are crucial for the economy. The demand of all these materials is forecasted to increase drastically in the coming years, which means that the rate of supply might no longer suffice to fill the demand. Circular economy principles have been suggested as a solution. Materials recovered from end-of-life components can secure supplies and reduce the environmental impact of products.

In this research, the implementation of circular economy approaches to address critical raw material demand in electric aviation is studied. According to the developed models, the material demand is negligible in comparison to other industries until 2050. However, as the electric aircraft technologies are still in development, there is a lot of uncertainty around the demand.

Beyond 2050, components will start reaching their end-of-life stage. In this case, a circular strategy considered feasible for electric motors is remanufacturing. After the Rare Earth Element magnets in the motors become obsolete, they can be recycled to recover the critical raw materials. Both hydrogen decrepitation and a combination of hydro- and pyrometallurgical processes can be used to regain materials for magnets in aviation or other applications.

Although circular economy strategies will not be able to significantly reduce the primary material demand in electric aviation by 2050, these can still lower the environmental impacts from production. Additionally, well-established circular practices could address the material demand more substantially in the future, after 2050, if electric technologies are more widely adopted then.