Get new materials right from the start and everyone benefits

head of 3d printer in action, macro viewA version of this post first appeared on BusinessGreen.

Environmentalists and techno-optimists aren’t always the most comfortable bedfellows. The relationship has been strained by an approach to climate policy, popular amongst Bush-era Republicans, that suggests there is no need to do anything today as innovation will solve all our problems tomorrow.

This approach isn’t completely wrong, we will only stop degrading our environment by developing new, clean alternatives to our present damaging methods of production and consumption. But, to assume innovation will simply deliver these better technologies ignores the fact that the state is a significant developer of new technologies and today’s policies shape where innovators invest their time, energy and money (as I’ve written about before in the context of the circular economy).

New materials offer an opportunity for green development
One area where there are grounds for both techno-optimism and some targeted innovation is materials science. Taking three of the most exciting areas – carbon fibre, bioplastics and 3D printing – there is clear potential for each of these technologies to deliver cleaner and greener replacements for materials or processes we use today. But, without thinking through what happens to products based on these technologies when they enter the waste stream, there is also the risk they will undermine efforts to minimise environmental impacts and fail to make the most of the financial opportunities from greater resource productivity.

As these are still emergent technologies, there is still an opportunity to shape their development and capture the upsides, whilst steering clear of the obvious pitfalls. Achieving this will depend on everyone involved in developing, commercialising and reprocessing these materials sharing their knowledge and experience.

That is why, with the support of the EPSRC, Innovate UK and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, Green Alliance is convening discussions between researchers and businesses whose decisions will shape how and where these new materials and technologies are used, to ensure maximum resource productivity and minimum environmental impact are designed in from the start.

Carbon fibre can still be rescued 
Perhaps the most urgent technology to consider in this context is carbon fibre. Thanks to its remarkable weight to strength ratio, carbon fibre composites are already displacing metals in high tech applications such as Boeing’s Dreamliner planes, BMW’s i3 electric vehicle, and Vestas’ wind turbines. Indeed, planes, cars and renewable energy are expected to be the biggest growth areas for the material.

At the moment, at the end of its useful life, carbon fibre is ending up in low value recycling, as current technologies cannot deliver recycled fibres with the same capabilities as new ones. To improve on this, we’re exploring the scope to standardise parts to increase reuse potential, and develop alternative polymers and recycling technologies that enable the recovery of higher quality fibres. Given that the current high cost of carbon fibre is driven by manufacturing costs, a recycled source of high quality fibres could significantly lower the cost of the technology and so increase the rate at which it’s adopted. This would mean getting cheaper electric cars and wind turbine blades sooner rather than later.

By contrast, the challenge for bioplastics and 3D printing isn’t how to improve on a lack of good options, it’s how to make the most of the opportunities they provide. So for these technologies we will map the materials and printing processes under development; we will analyse their properties and consider what products or sectors the technologies would be best applied to.

For bioplastics, the goal would be to match materials and applications according to their particular properties, eg polymers that are easy to recycle, even when they’re not totally clean, should be used in products that are often still dirty when they’re thrown away.

3D printing has clear potential to reduce material inputs for manufacturing and the resource intensity of consumption, by creating replacement components and parts for repair on demand. The question is which sectors would this best apply to and what further technological development is necessary to get it up and running?

By identifying opportunities and strategies to capitalise on them, the UK’s network of technology research, commercialisation and deployment centres can help UK industry to gain a competitive advantage. The potential it offers to increase resource productivity while lowering environmental impact would be a cause for celebration amongst environmentalists and techno-optimists alike.

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