Plastic waste is recycled into high-quality material

Thale in the Harz region of Saxony-Anhalt is an important location for powder metallurgy

From Saxony-Anhalt out into the wide world – powder metallurgy has been travelling this way for more than 80 years – with an inexhaustible supply of new ideas and developments. At the Hannover Messe, the PulverMetallurgische Kompetenz-Centrum Thale and Seco Thale GmbH will be presenting new procedures for the recycling of plastic without a decrease in quality.

Thomas Köck comes to a halt in front of one of the many big bags in the courtyard and pulls a black plastic part out of it: a dashboard. “Look...”, he holds it in the light. The human eye sees nothing, no scratches, no dents. The most modern testing technology takes a closer look. Quality control means safety, but even those parts with simple “cosmetic faults” end up with the rejects, says Köck.

Every month, the automobile manufacturer “Volkswagen” on its own brings two to three containers of plastic waste to the PulverMetallurgische Kompetenz-Centrum Thale. Thomas Köck is the Managing Director of the PMC. It currently has three tenants. They are young, up and coming companies that use the facility’s premises and the modern infrastructure and various advisory services. Above all, the start-ups benefit from the technical know-how and the large network of interdisciplinary partnerships.

The picturesque health resort of Thale, located in the Harz mountain region in the west of the German federal state of Saxony-Anhalt, possesses globally respected expertise in powder metallurgy. The technology for the manufacturing of iron powders and for their processing by presses and sintering was set up here in 1935 by Friedrich Eisenkolb. For more than 80 years, this town in the Harz mountains has been an important industrial location in the region. In the 1980s, Thale developed into the powder-metallurgy centre of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).

The manufacturing of, among other things, components and intermediate products such as welding rods made of metal powder has a long tradition in the city of Thale. The innovative activities in this connection included a project subsidised by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, which was initiated by the PMC and Corodur Verschleiß-Schutz GmbH, a company based there. It developed, among other things, new kinds of powder-metallurgical cored wires and sintering strips for welding technology. “These are globally unique”, says Thomas Köck.

Powder metallurgy continues to possess very great potential for research and development. “There is great industrial demand for production processes that save energy and material, especially in the automotive industry and aviation”, says the director of the engineering and technical centre. In view of the containers full of plastic wastes, he also draws attention to the loss of resources. “It is costly and affects the environment.” Volkswagen is among the PMC’s development partners. Köck goes ahead into one of the three production halls. He calls it the “Experimental Factory”, and the Managing Director says that here “visions take shape and set off out into the world.” On the floor, there stand sacks filled with granulate. This is shredded and ground plastic waste. The special thing about this is that it can be used again without a decrease in quality. “This is indeed a ground-breaking innovation”, emphasises Thomas Köck and explains: “Normally, plastics are thermally recycled or recycled in an inferior way, causing a drop in the quality of the material.”

A team around the inventor Jörg Beckmann had developed new processing procedures at the PMC, with which it is possible for the first time to add prepared plastic wastes to fresh mixtures that are almost 100% new. In 2015, the now patented invention was awarded the Hugo Junkers Prize for Research and Innovation from Saxony-Anhalt. Nicole Mahnke and Jürgen Deinert are involved in this project. The chemical lab assistant and the chemical engineer belong to the recently founded Seco Thale GmbH. The start-up company uses a laboratory, production hall and office spaces in the PMC. “Our tests are now going beyond the standard for laboratories”, says Jürgen Deinert and adds that the internally developed processing line in the “Experimental Factory” acts as a technical centre for further optimising processes and end products.

The heart of the invention, according to Deinert, is the separating process. Whether it be dashboards, surrounds or ventilator blades – different plastics are always processed. Polypropylene, polyurethane and polyvinylchloride have been separated from each other by means of the new technologies.

Laboratory assistant Mahnke pours black, white, and blue granules into glasses for the photo. “These are of different colours depending on the initial product”, she explains. “Or they are coloured before they are made into new parts in the plastic injection moulding.” Here in the laboratory, test measurements are carried out on sample pieces. The successful introduction of new testing and measuring systems was also a result of past research. Using the latest technology, Nicole Mahnke can prove that the recycled plastic is of high quality.

Meanwhile, the boss of the centre of excellence has his eye on another medium-term research aim: “The recycling of contaminated plastic wastes – without loss of quality, of course – will once again require several years of intensive development”, says Thomas Köck.

Author: Kathrain Graubaum (text / photo)

Caption: Thomas Köck, Managing Director of the the PulverMetallurgische Kompetenz-Centrum Thale (PMC), supported by Dr. Jürgen Deinert and Nicole Mahnke (f.l.t.r.) from the company Seco Thale GmbH, at the development of new technologies for the recycling of plastic.