Manufacturing a sustainability solution

Customer concerns and the direction of legislation, coupled with the latest engineering research, mean that smart manufacturers will seize the exciting opportunities offered by renewable materials and techniques. Kerry Kirwan explains.

The challenge of manufacturing a sustainable future - Sustainability
We could source large quantities of the materials that we use in all our manufacturing industries from renewable, recycled, or even waste sources.

Buzzwords such as ‘sustainability’, ‘circular economy’ and ‘resource efficiency’ are increasingly common terms in the manufacturing world.

Whether because of legislation, consumer pressure, financial security or simply good citizenship, most producers of goods and services are looking for ways to make their offerings more environmentally responsible.

Unfortunately, the uptake and use of renewable materials is still often hampered by misconceptions and misunderstanding about what they can actually do, or be used for.

In theory, we could source large quantities of the materials that we use in all our manufacturing industries from renewable, recycled, or even waste sources.

Kerry Kirwan, Professor of sustainable materials and manufacturing, WMG.
Kerry Kirwan, Professor of sustainable materials and manufacturing, WMG.

Indeed, many industries, including automotive, pharmaceutical, plastics, chemical and paints (to name but a few) are already actively researching greener sources of the feedstocks they use in their products.

But renewables still have a long way to go before they can go toe-to-toe with our more traditional materials. We know more about our current materials, we are more familiar with their use in manufacturing, and they are more consistent in price, performance, and supply. They are an easier option in most cases.

For the foreseeable future, use of renewables and recycled/ recovered materials will likely be comparatively niche, but in some instances they offer unique properties that can be cleverly exploited with the right research and approach.

For example, synthetic biology and microbiology are providing exciting new routes to releasing or recovering high-value materials from natural sources and waste streams.

WMG Sustainability PQ - Oct 2016A recent project I was involved in (Cleaning Land for Wealth), was funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and combined traditional engineering and material science with synthetic biology, soil science, plant agronomy and chemistry.

We were able to use the natural scavenging ability of plants to selectively remove toxic metals (arsenic and nickel in this case) from industrial wasteland, and then recover the metals in the form of hollow nanoparticles via some clever bacteria developed by colleagues at the University of Edinburgh.

These nanoparticles are similar to those used in industrial products and processes like batteries or catalysis. Not only was the land cheaply cleaned as a result, but the market value of the nanoparticles far outstripped any costs associated with the process.

Being environmentally friendly doesn’t have to mean a drop in quality or performance. The World First racing platform, that we launched at the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) in 2009, and which is still going strong, took green technologies that had been developed by us and our partners, and packaged them into a Formula 3 racing car – an extreme and demanding application.

WMG launched the World First racing platform in 2009.
WMG launched the World First racing platform in 2009.

To give some indication of performance, it was capable of 0-60 in 3.5 seconds, a top speed of 175mph and could do 18 miles to the gallon at race speed. This meant it was actually more competitive than a normal F3 car.

Of course, any change in approach is risky, and the challenge facing all of us is to realise the potential environmental benefits while retaining the performance, cost, and consumer acceptability of the resulting products.

Developing a standalone greener solution isn’t enough, which is why technical research must be underpinned by economic and social understanding, supply chain management and multi-criteria decision aiding (MCDA) models. These are necessary to help us decide what/when/where and how to deploy into the real world.

The good news is that the difficulties manufacturing faces in this green transition have not gone unnoticed by both the EU and the UK government, who are embedding sustainability (and more importantly funding) into their research calls.

Professor Kerry Kirwan, WMG Contact - SustainabilityFor example, EPSRC now have established themes in resource efficiency and circular economy, while Innovate UK have run (and will be running) zero waste and bio-based industries programmes.

Horizon 2020 is awash with calls on sustainability opportunities, not just directly in materials or manufacturing, but in wider associated areas such as energy, water and social wellbeing.

The combination of our long history of being at the forefront of innovation that tackles real problems, our highly entrepreneurial industry base and our globally active academic institutes gives UK plc the opportunity to steal a march on our global competitors and we should look forward to the future with a great deal of optimism.