Raw materials are needed in every industrial sector and in everyday life. Many of the current technologies and increase of the middle class are having a fundamental effect on the availability of raw materials.
New raw materials, which differ from those used in the traditional energy sector, are needed for new energy technologies – solar power, wind power and energy storage. Our raw material needs are changing by increased use of electronics, mobile phones and electric cars.
These were among the issues discussed at the Minerals Circular Economy Seminar held in the Satakuntatalo in Helsinki on 8 November 2016. The seminar was part of VTT’s Mineral Economy spearhead programme. The R&D work we have done so far felt worthwhile and received positive feedback, however much work has still to be done. A new VTT Research Highlights publication was released at the event: “Added value from responsible use of raw materials”. It is freely downloadable from the internet: http://www.vtt.fi/inf/pdf/researchhighlights/2016/R13.pdf
A product’s environmental impacts are largely determined at the design stage
Resource-efficient product design is not new: its principles were found in design guidelines from the 1930s.
Despite the fact that we know how to take account of reusability and recyclability in theory, products are becoming more and more difficult to recycle in practice, said David Peck (TUDelft, the Netherlands) in his presentation. We are also becoming more dependent on critical raw materials, because almost all functions depend on automatic data transmission and electronics. At the same time, we have become much less able to repair electronic products. This is a situation in which longer-term interruptions in the availability of certain raw materials could lead to serious problems in the basic functions of society.
Many valuable materials are not recycled
Electronics contain many raw materials that are classified as critical or otherwise valuable, some of which are not recycled at all, explained John Bacher in his presentation. The challenge lies in the cost-effective recovery of raw materials that occur in small quantities from heterogeneous and variable material flows. Multiple-stage collection and recycling chains also lead to considerable losses of raw materials, e.g. to dust from material crushing operations.
Several of the presentations referred to the possibility of more efficient processes for the exploitation of raw materials, more efficient recovery, resource-wiser production, and the utilisation of current waste and side streams throughout the value chain. Side streams and currently landfilled waste could be viewed as by-products; achieving the maximum possible increase in their value would enable their more efficient use.
Renewable energy is increasing the need for critical raw materials
The Minerals in Circular Economy Panel (Ilkka Kojo, Outotec; Raimo Lahtinen, GTK; Olli Salmi, EIT Raw Materials Baltic Sea CLC; Erja Turunen, VTT and Maria Wetterstrand) concluded that metals and mineral raw materials will continue to be important in the future. For example, increasing quantities of critical raw materials will be consumed during the generation and storage of renewable energy.
Because renewable energy devices have long lifespans, the stocks of raw materials in use will grow. We need to use R&D and seize the opportunities offered by digitalisation to find solutions for the sustainable use of raw materials, to avoid eventually having to seek raw materials beyond our own planet. But all this will not succeed without the support of political decision-makers and consumers.
Mineral Economy spearhead programme is generating technological innovations
Technological innovations emerging from VTT’s Mineral Economy programme are creating the basis of the circular economy. This meanssmart product design, reuse and remanufacturing, material recycling, alongside a waste-free approach and the added value use of current side streams and waste.
The programme aims to enhance the national and international visibility of VTT’s raw material and material research. Program also contributes to the activities of EIP Raw materials, PROMETIA (the Mineral Processing and Extractive Metallurgy for Mining and Recycling Innovation Association) and EIT Raw Materials and H2020 projects.
Päivi Kivikytö-Reponen, DSc (Technology), Senior Scientist, Manager of the Minerals Economy Programme
At VTT, Päivi Kivikytö-Reponen works on lifecycle solutions, materials from secondary sources, design and wear of industrial materials. She has around 20 years of experience of materials-based product development, research and quality assurance within industry, university and research institute.
Ulla-Maija Mroueh, Principal Scientist
Ulla-Maija Mroueh is a Principal Scientist at VTT. Her research focuses include recycling and waste utilisation concepts, production and consumption chains for mineral raw materials, raw material cycles and management of the environmental impacts of mines. She has over thirty years of experience of both international and Finnish research projects in this area.