The challenges of getting greener materials into industry

Sustainability is the word of the moment. Governments want everything to be underpinned by it and companies are at pains to stress their commitment to it. Economic, environmental and political factors are increasingly driving everyone to look at how to engineer a more sustainable future.

Sustainability is a broad term that can refer to creating materials from more natural sources such as being grown rather than mined, as well as materials that can be recycled or reused. The overall aim is to reduce the carbon footprint of products over their lifecycle and ensure a continuous, and perhaps endless, supply of future resources.

Materials form an important part of this and engineers bring huge benefit to companies by understanding what new materials are being developed and envisioning how to incorporate them into designs. While it is important to understand what materials are being developed, working closely with material developers can bring even bigger advantages. Put simply, engineers must do more to direct and shape future materials to maximise the benefit.

The challenge
While material chemists are excited by the work being done in areas such as graphene, science is only part of the challenge. To deliver a sustainable benefit new materials have to fit requirements, expectations and infrastructure. To ensure that future materials meet all the challenges down the line, chemists and engineers need to engage earlier in their respective development and selection of materials.

Safety requirements are an obvious, but necessary, barrier. In industries like automotive and aerospace new materials are required to go through very strict approval processes to become accepted for use, which can take anywhere between two and seven years. The dialogue between material developers and designers must be improved so those developing materials fully understand the requirements of certification testing, so any future material can be despatched in to service more quickly.

Now this may involve compromise on the side of the engineer. A material that can reduce the weight of an aircraft may be hugely beneficial but not fit neatly into a standard approval test. Engineers and materials developers need to work closely with external assessors, such as measurement institutes, to design tests appropriate for new materials while still ensuring it is fit for purpose.

Engineers need also explain the wider limitations to those developing materials. Companies won't replace an entire manufacturing operation to take advantage of a material that delivers an incremental improvement. They also won't take on a more recyclable material if the cost of recycling is extortionate. Helping material developers understand the limitations of the systems in which they work will help ensure new materials work for the purpose they are designed.

The way to approach all of these problems is through more cohesive supply chains, with clear communication of the end goals. The trend of global outsourcing has led to a breakdown in communication in these chains, however there are promising signs these are now being rebuilt. To fulfil this potential, innovators at every stage of the supply chain must work more closely together.

A model approach
The automotive sector provides an interesting model for supply chain collaboration. The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) recognised the integral role the whole supply chain plays here, particularly in relation to low carbon vehicles.

The Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform (LCVIP) was launched in September 2007 to promote low carbon vehicle research, design, development and demonstration, and to coordinate funding. It recognised the need to bring together the whole supply chain and ran a number of collaborative research and development competitions, the most recent being the 'Building an Automotive Supply Chain of the Future', which closed in November 2013. This looked for collaboration in power electronics, energy storage, internal combustion engines, and lightweight vehicle structures that could hasten the time to market for low carbon vehicles.

Such competitions help materials scientists, engineers and manufacturers work on funded, and therefore reduced risk, innovation projects with others in the supply chain. This has been a successful initiative and is being looked at as a model for other industries.

Several cross industry groups also exist and have been successful at bringing people together to solve problems collaboratively. The National Composites Centre also supports collaboration between those at all levels, and counts manufacturers and end users among its members.

Such initiatives highlight the need for, and success of, bringing together the people involved in turning materials into viable products. And this is particularly important when it comes to sustainability.

The driver for sustainability
As raw materials are depleted their cost will rise, significantly impacting energy prices. As these prices rise, it will create increasing demand to reduce energy consumption and move away from finite raw materials. The move will also be cemented by ever more stringent legislative requirements to reduce waste and emissions as well as the moral imperative being driven by consumers.

Perhaps the biggest change currently underway is replacing petrochemical-based materials and processes with bio-based ones. Bioethanol from sugar cane, for example, is used to produce bio-based PET – currently derived from petrochemicals – with production expected to top 5million tonnes by 2020.

In addition, research and development into plastics that biodegrade continues to show promise. Bio-based products can be extremely versatile with some bioplastics able to biodegrade quickly making them ideal for packaging, while others are just as stable as their fossil based counterparts, making them suitable for more durable products.

The demand for sustainability is likely to become a primary guiding principle and design driver for engineers across all disciplines in coming years and is also likely to increasingly influence the selection of materials. Working more closely with those developing the materials – either through direct partnerships, networking groups, or collaborative projects – will speed up the development of better products and deliver tangible benefits to the world.

Engineering Materials

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