Filling the gaps in research

The stories of raw materials and energy are intricately linked: it takes roughly 10% of the entire world’s energy consumption to produce mineral resources, for instance, and yet mineral resources are indispensable for the production of energy, conventional or renewable.

That means resource availability is a grand challenge for scientific and technical research. At the Veolia Institute’s 10th International Conference in partnership with the Oxford Martin School, speakers noted several initiatives developed in recent years to systematically address thorny problems of resource availability.
The EU’s recently concluded Resource Conservative Manufacturing project, for example, examined ways to help manufacturers design and implement closed-loop systems for resources, while the Circular Economy platform showcases what businesses, governments and other organisations are doing to increase resource circularity.

Other programmes and initiatives included the European Commission’s ongoing reports on critical raw materials for European industry, first published in 2011; the US Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute at Ames Lab, set up in 2013; and the UK’s Faraday Challenge for battery-related research.

Reclaiming waste, designing for circularity

While academia and government-driven research is moving towards tackling resource and materials questions in a comprehensive manner, speakers highlighted other white spaces in research.

To begin with, disciplines such as materials science and industrial design should be more aware of end-of-life and circularity issues, such as designing molecules and materials for recovery, remanufacturing or true recycling.

Some research might focus on designing products using what might otherwise be classed as waste. For instance, polymer chemist Charlotte Williams of Oxford University is working on polymer foam products where traditional hydrocarbon feedstocks have been substituted with ‘waste’ carbon dioxide – after all, a carbon molecule is a carbon molecule. The process not only reduces the use of petrochemicals but is also cheaper than conventional methods, and the first products – most likely mattress foams – are expected to go to market in the next two years, Williams indicated.

As for recycling, it’s vital to work on how to keep molecules in play at all, Williams said. For example, polymers can be broken down at much lower temperatures than glass or metal, so technically they are easier to recycle. Yet the amount of literature devoted to the forward reaction is “vast, [but the] equivalent literature on enabling the reverse process to occur is very sparse”.

In practical terms, the complexity of materials poses additional challenges, said Kerstin Kuchta of the Hamburg University of Technology, who studies ways to manage waste and turn it into resources. “In household waste streams, there are a lot of complex materials that we don’t recycle, because there is a constant change of materials that the recycler can’t keep up with,” she said. Other speakers pointed out the challenges of recovering and recycling the tens of thousands of polymers on the market, and the usefulness of lightweight materials like carbon-fibre-reinforced plastics, which enable planes and vehicles to run on less fuel. Can research help to design less-complex materials that are readily recycled but still fit for modern-day needs, and develop new ways to recycle materials with no currently-viable recovery processes?

Both Williams and Kuchta emphasised that it’s vital to design processes that work on existing infrastructure, which tends to have long lifetimes and into which companies have typically sunk significant investment. On the flip side, said Kuchta, it’s tricky to develop recycling technologies that must last for decades with very little knowledge of the types of waste that will be collected in 5 to 10 years’ time. Interdisciplinary collaborations could help develop materials, processes and systems to enable greater resource availability

Beyond materials expertise

Besides research into complex materials, work is also needed to find new streams of primary materials such as phosphorus, for instance, whose high-quality deposits are being depleted today. Demand for other extracted metals is also depleting their high-grade ores, forcing mining firms to use lower-quality ore grades. Speakers suggested that mining firms invest not only in exploration, but also research into higher productivity, waste and water management, and new international governance arrangements for mineral production and consumption. 

Research into new governance models could also boost resource availability in a circular fashion. Paul Ekins of University College London, for instance, proposed a model in which sellers own and take responsibility for the end-of-life fates of the materials in their products. Other speakers suggested using cities as pilot sites for new modes of infrastructure and transport development.

The awareness gap

Another category of white spaces was in education: what aspects of materials and resources do future practitioners and academics need to keep in mind?

Awareness of materials and resources is a key gap in various disciplines, from engineering to architecture and beyond, said Vernon Collis, a consulting engineer and architect in South Africa. Engineers and architects have “immense power and influence” over the materials and carbon footprint of infrastructure, Collis said. Yet neither profession has full training on materials. Architects consider first the design value of materials before their footprint, while engineers often lack awareness of the sociocultural context, he added.

That’s especially imperative in the developing world as urbanisation increases, said Mark Swilling, a sustainable development expert from the University of Stellenbosch. He raised the use of cement as an example: Cement and concrete are some of the most widely used materials on the planet, and cement production accounts for about 5% of global carbon emissions. Yet living in a concrete building, in the developing world, signifies one has arrived as middle class.
 “[That]…raises the question of training professionals,” Swilling said. “Training an architect who has never heard the story of materials: how can you possibly expect them to design anything of significance from the sustainability point of view?”

Tying it all together: information management and modelling

Beyond technologies and materials designed for resource efficiency and recyclability, however, research is necessary to develop more models to assess various decisions, technologies to manage data and information, and scenarios to help policymakers, companies and others understand the future impact of today’s decisions.
For instance, the EU’S MEDEAS project models the impacts of the renewable energy transition, including the impact on material resources. Life-cycle assessments such as that by UC Santa Barbara’s Sangwon Suh help us understand the materials demand of consumption and production, and the impacts of green technology choices on materials demand. Meanwhile, databases help manufacturers assess how and where they might gain from collecting, remanufacturing and reusing products. Veolia, for example, is developing a database of recyclable materials to help industrial customers identify potential material sources from waste streams.
Other information management systems are needed to trace resources through the supply chain, speakers added – everything from tracking the environmental and social impacts of mined metals and minerals, to tracing and managing building materials at the end of a building’s lifespan so that the materials can be reused or recycled.

Ultimately, research should not be limited to ways of making resource usage incrementally more efficient, but probe various levers for fundamentally altering the way we use materials and consume goods and services. In his closing address for the conference, Veolia CEO Antoine Frérot noted that in nature, everything is a resource, and that innovation should try to learn from nature.

“The natural cycles of materials are complex; to reproduce them artificially requires a high level of know-how and cutting-edge technologies,” Frérot said. “Hence the necessity for us to continue with our research efforts.”