The (im)practibility of materials in a circular economy
Our growing world population and increasing prosperity is putting more and more pressure on global energy consumption and the demand for materials. The challenges in the area of energy consumption, materials consumption and climate change are closely interlinked, but the use of materials is often something we take for granted. According to materials expert Erik Offerman it is high time we turned things around. ‘The availability of materials in the world is putting more constraints on us than the energy question. We are going to have to use an increasing amount of materials to achieve the transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy. Think of the wind farms, solar panels and energy storage systems that we will need to build. This is a serious concern and a much bigger problem than people realise. Both in terms of geopolitics and materials science. The mindset really needs to change. It’s time for action,’ Offerman says. This month Offerman published his book Critical Materials: Underlying Causes and Sustainable Mitigation Strategies. A must-read for all materials scientists, mechanical engineers and product developers.
People should already be thinking about sustainability issues related to the production, use and end of a product’s lifecycle when designing products and materials. Are we being efficient with our scarce resources and energy? Are we using any critical or toxic materials? Can the product be recycled in such a way that high-quality materials can be made from it again? Bearing in mind resource efficiency, reuse and recycling while designing materials and products is the way to go, according to Offerman.
‘A switch to a circular economy could be accelerated by simplifying the materials system and by carefully selecting material combinations. This is feasible by using fewer alloying elements/additives. At the moment, a relatively large number of different alloying elements/additives are being used to provide materials with the desired properties, which makes recycling of mixed-material streams more difficult. State-of-the-art insight into the microstructure (e.g. grain size and texture) of materials may be used to create materials with the same or better properties, but with fewer alloying elements/additives, which could improve recyclability. Metals are essentially easy to recycle as long as that’s been taken into account already during the design stage. That’s an entirely different way of thinking – a more holistic approach, from a systems perspective. The first step is to raise awareness. That’s one of the aims of my book, to promote awareness. This theme matters to the work of every materials scientist and product developer.’
The book ‘Critical Materials: Underlying Causes and Sustainable Mitigation Strategies is available from February onwards. The proceeds of the sale will go to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. The book will be presented during a symposium on 20 March 2019 at TU Delft.
The impetus for writing Critical Materials: Underlying Causes and Sustainable Mitigation Strategies was the series of reports recently published by the International Resource Panel (IRP) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which raises concerns about whether or not there are sufficient materials for the growing world population and the transition to sustainability that needs to be made. In order to meet the demand for materials in 2050 we would need to triple resource extraction. In addition, the world is experiencing various geopolitical problems related to materials. One example is the conflict between Japan and China about rare earth metals that took place in 2010. These kinds of conflicts are likely to become more common as tensions mount about the availability of materials. In his book, Offerman and his fellow researchers delve into the geopolitical problems of materials, the economic developments and the energy transition. Thanks to contributions by eminent fellow researchers from all over the world with a broad perspective on the subject, Offerman has succeeded in scrutinizing the term critical materials, and his book identifies potentially new sustainable solutions to alleviate tensions regarding critical materials.
Erik Offerman works with Leiden University and Erasmus University Rotterdam on facilitating a circular economy in the area of materials science. Together they launched the Centre for Sustainability. Leiden University’s research focuses on the environmental aspects of materials. 3mE’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering primarily examines resource efficiency, substitution and recycling, and the EUR focuses on new business models associated with a circular economy. Read more.