“Climate change lies at least to some extent in putting the carbon in the right place, instead of sending more and more of it to the atmosphere and the oceans; we should bring it back to the soil” (M. Braungart).
By Ignasi Cubiná
Biologist, CEO and founder of EcoIntelligentGrowth, a consulting services firm that advocates for the transition towards Circular Economy based on the Cradle2Cradle principles.
The attention focused on 2D materials, particularly graphene both by scientists and by financial investors in new technologies is indicative of a remarkable shift in the development of products and structures.
In the previous article I explained what the Circular Economy option was and how it was related to Cradle to Cradle. A shift from a linear, extractive and bound-for-scarcity to a circular, regenerative and designed-for-abundance economy requires the fastest, most effective transition possible.
What is required to speed up the model shift?
In my opinion, transparency is the key to what some consider to be the Third Industrial Revolution. According to the person who coined the term the Nort American economist and visionary Jeremy Rifkin this would be coupled to the Internet world and its relationships (IoT, the internet of things) to help us move towards a new model of post-capitalist society, the Zero Marginal Cost Society.
In essence, the new society model promotes a progressive reduction of marginal costs both productive and non-productive based on a collaborative economy (Collaborative of Commons) that holds the abundance of ecological, material and energy resources as the basis for welfare.
As opposed to those people who believe in progressive dematerialization, I believe that materials will play a fundamental role in the new economic model, and in material engineering and architecture there lie some important keys to produce and reproduce materials and products that improve people’s life while regenerating natural ecosystems. Research has been done on some of these materials for years, and it seems we almost reached the point for their practical, industrial scale application.
Innovation in Materials
Progress in the design and manufacturing of Advanced Materials is making it possible that a multi-component material such as a carbon fiber composite that assembles carbon threads in a thermostable epoxy resin may be redesigned and optimized at industrial scale. The optimization race is on, and it seems we are moving forward at a fast pace. Teijin, a Chinese company (the company was said to be Chinese in Reinventing Fire, but other sources stated it was a Japanese company) seems to have been designing an industrial scale process it should be taken into account that big automotive companies manufacture about 250,000 vehicles a year to encapsulate carbon fibers in a thermoplastic material. That would make it possible to recover the material for further use, provided dismantling design allows for that. Thus, the main drawback of technological material (its cost in terms of energy and money) would be recovered during the use phase of the product (car use and energy consumption) as well as at the end of it (recovery of energy and material). The remaining components, as well as the combination of design and new business models should, according to the authors, completely disconnect mobility from fossil fuel use in 2050, and probably before that year.
Let’s imagine a world in which the concept of “waste” no longer existed. This would clearly reduce pressure on material availability and their corresponding embodied energy (about 20-40% of embodied energy in virgin raw materials is related to the phases of extraction and transport to factories), but we would still have a problem involving energy and hydric efficiency. Particularly in a planet with a population over 9000 million people.
Michael Braungart often says that energy is not the real problem: materials are. Needless to say, energy efficiency is essential for consumption reduction, and most of all to go through structural inefficiencies in energy collection and distribution and gradually fix them. But energy storage is essentially a matter of materials. It is also a matter of energy quality (exergy) and of really renewable energy being available, in real time (fossil fuels are in fact a natural capital we deplete without ever being able to replace it properly, given the current use rate and the human time scale). The chemical industry was a pioneer in efficient energy use, but one step forward must be taken. A growing number of companies are involved, and they recover the CO2 their processes generate and use it as a raw material in the production of plastic polymers (e.g. PP, PE, PS…). “Climate change lies at least to some extent in putting the carbon in the right place, instead of sending more and more of it to the atmosphere and the oceans; we should bring it back to the soil”(M. Braungart).
Disengaging product production from burning fossil fuels is a challenge that the chemical industry should tackle (and it is able to do so); in fact, this is the industry that has the best resources for that.
2D Materials and Nanotechnological Architecture
The way atoms and molecules are assembled to manufacture materials is a branch of physics gradually receiving more and more attention. The molecular origin of materials, their dimensional structure and the impact of nanomolecules both on our health and the health of the planet are at the centre of a revolution with scientific, technological and social aspects, and their first outcomes are starting to be seen. The attention focused on 2D (bidimensional) materials such as Germanene, Phosphorene, Silicene and particularly graphene both by scientists and by financial investors in new technologies is indicative of a remarkable shift in the development of products and structures.
The arrangement of atoms and molecules in the theoretical field, and even more so from a experimental point of view, requires joint efforts by physical, chemical and biological science. Biology should be carefully taken into account when working with such materials, besides their highly promising physico-chemical properties. In a viable, real Circular Economy model, biological toxicity (in particular cytotoxicity) of nanomaterials is as important as their properties from a functional and engineering point of view. Possible applications of materials such as Silicene may be amazingly diverse, as their use as semiconductors for LED technology and photovoltaic panels, their use in construction materials, the aeronautical industry, systems for energy storage (batteries), etc.
The evolution of the proper nanotechnological materials could make the following sentence from William McDonough (regarding the use of architectural materials) come true in the near future: “From the molecule to the region”.
Organic and/or inorganic materials: the final entanglement between physics and chemistry. This technology and its application scale (the molecular level) may bring forward ethical and moral dilemmas, as it could alter the biophysical core of our world. Therefore, social management of nanotechnology should be given the utmost attention.
“Abundance management” should not be the business of just a few people: distributive economy should be so in practice, and reach everybody (all species), everywhere, at all times.