A glimpse at sustainability-driven innovations in advanced materials
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Materials are the building blocks of our world. The progress of modern society accompanies an advent of innovative materials to enable new performance and functionalities, as epitomized by the invention of the two most representative man-made materials: steels (4000 years ago) and petroleum-derived plastics (80 years ago). Their widespread use as structural and functional materials, on one hand, has radically revolutionized our daily lives, and on the other hand, comes with tremendous energy costs and heavy environmental impacts.
Our collective race to modern development has been accompanied by rising grand challenges. The ever-growing world population demands significant material consumption that drives efforts in material discovery. In parallel, a precipitous decline of resources and the acceleration of global energy consumption have led to an alarming call for preserving our planet. Never before has the world faced such an urgency for sound scientific knowledge and expertise, to better assess and tackle the associated climate and sustainability-related impacts.
In this paradigm, the world has entered a new era in technical innovation dedicated to the design of advanced (i.e. new, intelligent, functional, greener) materials.
Advanced materials are critical in our collective journey, already becoming an indispensable part across industries and all sectors of the economy. They are at the core of the design of new technologies that range from systems engineering to energy harvesting or biomedicine. New fields of application abound, from electrocatalysis of water or ethanol to give green hydrogen fuels, to water purification, low power electronics, lighter and stronger construction materials, high-performance photodetectors, or new materials for computing. Industrial majors integrate advanced materials to improve their existing processes and manufacturing. New lines of products built around their innovative functionalities are regularly introduced, experiencing the classic market booms and busts. Aware of those opportunities, a booming generation of startups is among the vanguard of an industry that has been compelled by market forces to adapt and change for more sustainably designed products and technologies.
At the institutional level, national investment roadmaps in cutting-edge research and innovation are increasingly driven by approaches that involve tackling climate challenges first-hand, setting ambitious goals like a net-zero emissions approach for a toxic-free environment. Sustainability, circularity, risk management, reduced volume and mass, reuse, and rechannelling of used materials are all key pillars (e.g., see the EU agenda). The underlying ambition is to develop an anticipatory risk and impact governance approach –for governments, corporations, and consumers alike– to proactively avoid the occurrence of unexpected impacts of advanced materials whilst not hindering innovation. Price systems, regulatory frameworks as well as collective mindsets are expected to quickly join forces and enable a better life-cycle materials management –an approach to serving societal needs by using or reusing resources most productively and sustainably. Early considerations include how close a new material is to the market and the potential scale of application (the first step towards impact evaluation and milestones), whether it has a significant societal or economic benefit and, finally, whether there are concerns on sustainability, human health, legislation, and intertwined economies.
The collective expectations for advanced materials towards sustainable societies are thus particularly high. Citizens, governments and investors alike are keen on embracing innovative solutions in five core domains:
1. New urban environments
Advanced materials hold a major potential to reinvent cities, with sub-segments of applications like enhanced structural and construction materials (strength, mitigation of corrosion), greener and recycle-friendly materials, lightweight cementitious composites, energy-harvesting materials. In parallel, shape memory alloys, piezoelectric and magnetostrictive smart materials are future platforms for new services within urban networks (e.g., infrastructure diagnostic, end-of-life measures). As new types of embedded structural sensors, they help to monitor products within their life cycle. In Norway, ReforceTech produces non-corroding reinforcement solutions for concrete, made from mineral fibre composites, to replace steel bars with lower density and higher tensile strength alternatives. The Sweden-based Svenska has developed an aerogel made of a proprietary compound called quartzene used for thermal and acoustic insulation paint, panels, sealants as well as insulating plaster and concrete (lightweight and fireproof). In Switzerland, CompPair has developed a unique technology to reduce maintenance costs, reduce manufacturing defects and extend the lifetime of composites in construction, allowing them to regenerate over time.
2. New industrial processes
Advanced materials are responsible for innumerable innovations around us, and have become significantly used in industries like automotive, aerospace, electronics or metals. Technologies such as additive manufacturing for zero waste feeding, sustainable mining, waste and friction reduction, resource efficiency and reuse of waste; and in particular substitution of critical raw materials and of materials of concern are all part of the advanced materials revolution. Ideally, bio-based, renewable materials will comprise a sizeable portion of the circular economy in the future. In the UK, Xampla is tackling microplastic pollution with their plant-based protein materials. The result is natural, decomposes fully and performs like traditional synthetic polymers. The Texas-based unicorn, Solugen, reimagines chemical manufacturing using plants and renewable feedstocks rather than petroleum, converting green waste into ultra-pure hydrogen peroxide. In the future, it aims to convert carbon into useful products like building materials and formaldehyde-free resin. DiviGas in Singapore has patented new polymers and produces nanofiltration membranes that allow hydrogen lost every year at petrochemical plants to be automatically re-used.
3. New carbon capture technologies
Many players are looking at new technologies to capture CO2 emissions (“CO2e”) from fuel combustion or industrial processes, either to use it as a resource to create valuable products or service, or to sequester it permanently underground (mostly in geological formations). Twelve is a rising, new kind of chemical company whose core technology is an electrochemical reactor called O12 that uses proprietary catalysts to absorb legacy CO2e, turning them into essential products everyone uses today. The Y-combinator graduate Noya Labs offers a drop-in technology for already built and operating cooling towers to capture carbon and convert it into a high-grade form that can be sold as feedstock to manufacturers. Lastly, Bill Gates-backed CarbonCure introduced a direct add-on to manufacturing processes, recycling CO2e into fresh concrete and reducing the carbon footprint of the construction industry.
4. New energy systems
Advanced materials are also key to fulfil the demand for clean energy, from the continuous development of photovoltaic materials and solar thin films, the widespread use of polymer matrix composites in wind turbines, or the booming integration of advanced ceramics and corrosion-resistant coatings in the nuclear energy and geothermal sectors. In addition, carbon fibre composites, phase change materials and optical metamaterials are bound to play a fundamental role in the efficiency of transportation and storage networks, as well as the optimization at the point of delivery. Graphene Watts in Singapore optimizes batteries using graphene into products with the energy, power and cycle life demanded by the electric-vehicle revolution. The startup Lomare in the UK works at decreasing the energy consumption of embedded memory necessary for applications in the automotive, IoT and computer fields. American based iBeam produces flexible LEDs using crystalline-aligned coatings on glass, flexible metal or plastic foils.
5. New consumption models
Across a wide variety of consumer industries (from retail to logistics), sustainability as a concept has developed from a fringe to a mainstream issue for manufacturers, managers, marketers, and further stakeholders throughout the past years. The shift in consumers’ mindsets and increasing awareness regarding their environmental impact triggered companies to focus on greener supply chains, new sustainable products and improving their overall value chain. In parallel, the development of new materials is in many cases the result of customers’ demands for lighter, stronger and cheaper options. Genecis, a Canadian company, reprograms bacteria from low-value organic waste, manufacturing high-quality biodegradable polymers that can be used to make products such as thermo-resistant packaging, compostable coffee pods and even 3D-printing filaments. In Israel, Algaeing developed a proprietary method to spin sustainable bio-fibres for the textile industry in a full closed-loop system, as well as create dyes that are made with algae. Magnomer in the US integrates novel magnetic inks into packaging materials, which makes it easier for firms to separate products for recycling when it comes to their end-of-life. Within the world of enzymatic recycling, UK based Scindo is developing a novel biological platform for low-energy, green and economical upcycling of landfill plastics into high-value compounds used in the beauty, cosmetics and fragrance industries.
It is an exciting time to be part of a revolution. The world is watching renewables expand dramatically, communities are embracing organics, our cities and corporations are becoming more energy efficient, and the sleeping giant of behavioral change is beginning to awaken. To bring all the sustainability puzzle pieces together, new advanced materials will play a major role. We commit to play our part to support this acceleration.