Ford and Alcan have launched what is claimed to be the North American automotive industry's first ‘closed-loop’ recycling programme for aluminium sheet scrap. Under the new programme, Ford recovers aluminium process scrap from its Chicago stamping plant and returns it to Alcan for recycling directly back into automotive sheet.

Previously, the recovered aluminium was sold into the general scrap market in combination with other metals, thus diminishing both its quality and value and making it unsuitable for re-use in vehicle body applications. The new ‘closed-loop’ process is claimed to provide “significant” economic and environmental benefits for both corporations.

The aluminium scrap is generated during the stamping of aluminium bonnets (hoods) for various Ford models. Aluminium ‘blanks’ made of an automotive aluminium alloy, known as AA6111, are cut to the required shape at the stamping plant and the trimmed edges are collected for recycling. The plant is Ford's highest-volume user of aluminium sheet, stamping nearly 1.3 million bonnets annually, and generating about 13 million pounds of process scrap to recycle.

Key to the success of the process is the ability to segregate the AA6111 scrap from other steel and related byproducts generated in the plant. Ford invested nearly $400,000 in modifications to the existing separation system to produce ‘clean’ aluminium scrap. This higher-value material is then bundled, strapped with non-metallic banding and shipped to Alcan's aluminium plant in Oswego, New York, where it is re-melted and rolled once again into automotive sheet. This loop can be repeated virtually indefinitely because aluminium does not degrade when recycled.

Alcan said up to 85% of the aluminium's primary value can be retained by segregating the scrap and turning it back into automotive sheet metal while the recycling process requires only 5% of the energy used to produce the primary metal.

Ford and Alcan belong to the Auto Aluminium Alliance, a collaborative research effort between the automotive and aluminium industries that is developing a new process using advanced lasers to further improve the sorting of metals from scrapped vehicles.