Towards precision materials
Other sectors Oil and gas Power and renewables Maritime

Materials science and its applications in novel and improved technologies aims to provide abundant, affordable and environmentally friendly essentials for life. Materials for tomorrow will need to meet the demands of fabrication while remaining cost efficient and complying with sustainability and safety requirements.

Reuse, recycling and the circular economy

The cost of newbuilding, raw materials shortages, and requirements to limit environmental footprints, will all drive technology that enhances life extension and reuse, and which promotes recycling of assets to a much greater extent than seen today. Recycling is critical in the circular economy model, where waste is minimized through maintaining the persistence of technical nutrients (i.e. metals, plastics, ceramics, etc.). However, an ever-greater emphasis is being placed on designing products for longevity, shareability, repair and servicing, and remanufacturing. A core principle of circularity is that fewer materials are used and less energy expended if a product can be easily repaired rather than discarded (where materials first have to be extracted before being incorporated new products).

One glaring example of the failure of the linear consumer economy to responsibly manage materials is the increasing problem of plastic waste in our oceans, where remedial actions are now needed, but are logistically and economically complex and demanding.

Industry demand for recycled plastic is limited compared with metal and papers, with the small percentage of plastic that is mechanically recycled trading at a discount to virgin resin1. Most postconsumer plastic is simply burned or dumped in often inadequately designed landfills. New strategies for the chemical recycling of plastic are emerging, to produce synthetic diesels, or reduction to biochar for recarbonizing depleted soils2. But the first prize will be feedstock recycling: returning postconsumer plastic waste into reusable feedstock. There are already some promising early-stage pyrolysis- based commercial feedstock recycling ventures and R&D projects – indicating that the practice could mainstream before 20303.

Materials science in plastic recycling
Raising standards

Beyond cost considerations, tightening legal requirements to limit environmental footprints and new and emerging standards (e.g, Corporate Value Chain – Scope 3) are placing pressure on supply-chain strategies to take recycling and reuse into account. For example, tech giant Apple is developing automated disassembly systems for iPhones to support rapid, efficient recycling. Based on an average weight per vehicle, EU member states require 95% reuse and recovery of materials from end-of life vehicles, and that 85% of the waste shall be reused4. Batteries deemed unfit to continue powering cars or other transportation could be put to other uses, like providing backup power for business or community energy-storage systems. Such requirements are likely to drive business model changes – a pivot from the transportation of raw material and the manufacturing of new products towards manufacturing models that focus on refurbishing existing parts and products.

A science-based approach

In reviewing these trends, it is important to recognize the vital role that fundamental material science will play in the development of many emerging technologies poised to deeply change our lives and industrial processes. Just a few examples include mobile electronic technology, molecular and quantum computing, recovering alternative energy sources, the biotechnology revolution, robotics and automation, 3D printing, and self-assembling.

Meeting these objectives will require greater precision in materials properties, and in the processes to derive them. This precision will be enabled by an ever-increasing linking of materials modelling and simulations into the design process, which can lead to new design concepts. This collaboration between modelling and design has been branded as Integrated Computational Materials Engineering (ICME)5. It is likely that, in 2030, we will be able to ask what material performance we need, rather what is available. Innovations in fundamental science, and the development of algorithms and high-performance computation of material properties, will help to make this paradigm shift a reality.

  1. McKinsey & Company (2019) How plastic waste recycling could transform the chemical industry
  2. L. Milios et al., Plastic recycling in the Nordics: A value chain market analysis, Waste Management, 2018 Jun;76:180–189.
  3. See, for example
  4. DIRECTIVE 2000/53/EC of the European Parliament and of The Council of 18 September 2000 on end-of life vehicles.
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