Getting novel materials right from the start should be an industrial strategy priority

This post first appeared on BusinessGreen.Three dimensional plastic 3d printer

As Theresa May’s foreword to the industrial strategy shows, the government has a lot riding on this policy. The prime minister variously talks it up as the answer to the UK’s productivity problem, the means of rebalancing the economy away from financial services, and a source of employment in those parts of the country that have lost successful industries. Delivering all these objectives will require multiple approaches, as no single intervention can achieve everything.

Novel materials are an opportunity for the UK
Providing employment opportunities for all means creating new low and high skilled jobs, but increasing low skilled employment does nothing to increase productivity. There is, however, an approach that could help to deliver both. Green Alliance’s new report looks at how to make novel materials and manufacturing processes fit with a circular economy. It shows that, if recycling and reuse are designed in at the start, developing novel materials can be a source of both productivity and employment opportunities.

The development and commercial application of novel materials are big opportunities for the UK. These processes are entirely dependent on innovation which is a key factor in raising productivity levels. Expertise in UK universities has given us a global competitive advantage in materials science which has provided employment for high skilled material scientists, designers and engineers, concentrated in existing centres of excellence.

Promoting the circular use of novel materials would help spread these benefits more widely across the country. Previous Green Alliance work with WRAP has shown that a more circular economy creates jobs at all skill levels and in all areas. The problem is that novelty and circularity don’t always play nicely together, with the most successful circular systems dependent on large volumes of homogenous, predictable material.

To ensure that all the benefits of novel materials do not come at the expense of circular economy business opportunities, it is important to think through what will happen to products made from new materials in current waste management systems.

Circular economy thinking from the start
One of the examples we looked at was cars made from carbon fibre reinforced polymers. We found that recycling these cars via the standard processing system means none of the highly valuable fibres can be recovered. Outputs from car shredders are too small and too mixed to be used as an input for current carbon fibre reprocessors, which use equipment developed to handle more consistent waste from manufacturing processes.

There are multiple solutions to this problem. You could design cars so parts containing carbon fibre are easily removed before reaching the shredder (also useful for reuse). Or you could invest in alternative recycling technologies that are better suited to dealing with these end of life wastes. Perhaps best of all would be to invest in making thermoplastics cheaper and easier to use in composites, as these can be melted off and enable recovery of both the fibres and the plastic.

These solutions are not just important to avoid wasting a material that is very resource intensive to produce. Recycled carbon fibre sells for 20-40 per cent less than the newly produced material. Using material recycled in the UK would reduce manufacturers’ exposure to commodity and currency fluctuations, providing them with a way to cut costs and improve competitiveness.

The car example demonstrates the importance of introducing circular economy thinking at the design stage of novel material development to multiply the economic benefits of investing in the materials and spreading that wealth more widely. We found similar opportunities for bioplastics and additive manufacturing techniques (including 3D printing).

Thinking ahead like this prevents potentially serious waste problems arising down the line and ensures we can extract maximum value from limited resources. By encouraging this approach as part of the industrial strategy, the government has an opportunity to achieve both its productivity and its employment ambitions.

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