University of Detroit Mercy researchers want to kick the fluff out of the car-disposal industry. Recyclers say it's about time.
For years, questions of utility surrounded fluff, the industry moniker for the nonmetal residue that remains after cars are shredded. It comprises plastics, rubber and upholstery and is widely regarded as useless because it is difficult to separate for recycling.
After 15 months of research, however, scientists at UDM's Polymer Institute say they have found a potentially profitable life for fluff and its cousin, automo-tive shredder residue, or ASR.
``The focus has always been on recycling like materials,'' said Kurt Frisch, director of research at the Polymer Institute. ``We're now taking whatever is left and recycling it for a number of very marketable uses.''
Potential uses range from railroad ties to lightweight cushioning. The UDM labs are creating a range of products, some with the pliability of foam rubber, others with compression strengths three times that of concrete. The materials used to bind the fluff can cost as little as 30 cents a pound, which UDM officials say makes this an economical recycling option.
The key to making these products is understanding fluff and ASR at their origins in auto shredders.
Fluff is one of three byproducts created when a car is shredded. The others are ferrous metals, which contain iron; and nonferrous shredder residue, which consists of nonferrous metals, plastics and rubber.
Nonferrous residue is further broken down into ASR. The terms fluff and ASR often are used interchangeably.
The amount of nonferrous materials in cars has risen in recent years as manufacturers have strived to build lighter and more efficient models.
Roughly 25 percent of today's cars, except for tires, end up in landfills.
Sandy Labana, chairman of the Big Three's Vehicle Recycling Partnership, said waste accounts for about 3 million tons annually. Although that sounds like a lot, Labana said, it represents about 2 percent of the waste municipalities send to landfills.
Nevertheless, said Labana, automakers have an economic interest in salvaging as much material as possible.
``The driving force is that these materials have pretty good value, so they should be recycled and reused,'' he said. ``That's the most logical reason.''
Test materials for UDM's research were supplied by Belle-ville's Huron Valley Steel Co., a leading reclaimer and processor of nonferrous automotive metals.
Richard Osterberg, Huron Valley's vice president of operations, said the debate over what to do with automotive residue has raged for years. Researchers have analyzed the merits of converting it into fuel as either oil or burnable gas, he said. Others have extracted materials from the scrap and reconfigured them into polymers that can make new products.
The results of the UDM tests are promising, according to Osterberg.
``The thing that excited me most about UDM's approach was that they weren't attempting to sort out the fluff,'' he said. ``Their approach was to take it the way it is and create some sort of composite polymer using different kinds of binder material.''
The UDM team is able to do this because it has identified a variety of shredding processes. Some shredders use wet processes; others dry, forced-air systems. Few are exactly the same.
By understanding how and at which point material is broken apart, UDM scientists say, residue particles can be classified by size and consistency. That makes future use much easier.
``The big misconception is that there's one waste stream - one ASR,'' said Vahid Sendijarevic, an associate research professor at the Polymer Institute and the principal investigator for the project. ``But ASR varies depending on how it's separated at the shredder. We can now identify which shredder process the ASR came from ... and make different materials depending on its origin.''
UDM's work is so promising it was named the year's best recycling research project by the Michigan Materials and Processing Institute, a nonprofit consortium of industries and universities that work on polymer composite materials for the durable-goods industry. The institute is also a contributor to UDM's research grant.
Osterberg of Huron Valley Steel said he agrees with the designation.
``I think they have demonstrated the most practical approach,'' he said. ``A lot of times, universities talk pie-in-the-sky stuff, but this really appears to be a practical solution.''
UDM next month is slated to share its findings with industry, including representatives from the Big Three.