There is no time to waste: Europe is in dire need of a set of exhaustive, well-thought out strategies in order to deal with our continent’s dependency on raw materials. KU Leuven is taking heed: in a number of trailblazing projects, the university’s researchers from a wide array of disciplines are tackling our planet’s need for advanced Zero Waste technologies, towards a Zero Waste future.
KU Leuven Pioneers Promising Waste Prevention Technologies
We have all been confronted with heart-wrenching images of gigantic landfills, or shocking viral videos of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which keeps on growing each year. The message that environmentalists have been sending out for years is finally being heard: the environmental impact of our ever growing natural resource extraction levels is problematic, and the planet is suffering because of the mass production of plastics. In reaction to that, the Zero Waste movement, which avoids single-use products and plastic packaging, is picking up steam around the world.
Slowly but surely, people are coming to accept the idea that we need to conserve the world’s resources by producing less trash. The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) aims to do so by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of all products, packaging, and materials, without burning them, and without discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health. On a small scale, we can all support the Zero Waste way of life by shopping locally or in second-hand shops, avoiding plastic bags at grocery stores, and composting. All it takes is committing to the view that, actually, there is no such thing as waste. Rather, waste should be regarded as a source of materials and energy.
Sustainability is key
KU Leuven is at the forefront of a series of innovative studies supporting the Zero Waste philosophy. Denying the existence of waste is precisely what lies at the heart of the various exciting initiatives the university’s researchers are currently undertaking. The Belgian university can count on support from the European level: Horizon 2020, the largest EU Research and Innovation programme, with a special focus on advancements in sustainable energy and renewable energy, is responsible for a substantial part of total funding. With the help of those additional funds, research teams at KU Leuven strive for an increase in breakthroughs when it comes to producing and consuming the Zero Waste way. Let’s dive into some of those auspicious endeavours!
An important contribution towards a Zero Waste society is being made by the European Training Network for the Sustainable, zero-waste valorisation of critical-metal-containing industrial process residues (SOCRATES). Instead of focusing on what we lack in Europe, i.e. access to large ore deposits containing economically valuable metals, this initiative zooms in on what we do have: vast quantities of residues from various industrial processes, which happen to contain significant concentrations of valuable metals.
The groundbreaking research carried out by SOCRATES aims to create a circular value chain by designing state-of-the-art techniques to recover these metals while also valorising the mineral matrices. However, the researchers’ ambitions do not stop there: their aim is to come up with techniques that are free from toxins, and are based on the Zero Waste ideology. By unlocking the potential of these so-called ‘secondary raw materials’, SOCRATES makes a particularly promising step towards a more sustainable supply chain for critical metals.
Did you know that we are actually – quite literally – sitting on a pile of valuable resources? That is right: as it stands, Europe is littered with over half a million of historical municipal landfill sites, which are currently covered with woods, roads and buildings. When we dig those up, we will encounter a treasure trove of substances and materials boasting enormous economic and ecological potential. Indeed, landfill residues can provide major amounts of materials and energy carriers. One problem: about 90% of said landfills are deemed “non-sanitary”. This is where New Mine Enhanced Landfill Mining (ELFM) in the EU, as envisaged by EU Training Network NEW-MINE, comes in: transforming these “mountains of waste” into recycled materials and energy through a series of cost-effective, environmentally friendly techniques. The goal: dig up (most of) the waste, and reuse it in a variety of ways.
Currently, NEW-MINE is developing new techniques that make it possible for leftover waste to be reused. One of the techniques being explored is combined plasma and solar gasification. Using a mixture of solar energy and electricity, the waste is converted into syngas and a glassy fraction. The syngas is then upcycled to hydrogen gas, which in turn can be used as a fuel for electric vehicles. The glassy fraction, on the other hand, is upcycled into a green cement, which can be used to produce bricks, tiles or even more advanced building materials.
In addition, the European Training Network for Zero-Waste Valorisation of Bauxite Residue (REDMUD), targets the vast streams of a specific type of landfilled industrial residue, i.e. bauxite residue (BR). Dealing with BR in a well-considered manner is crucial, taking into account that BR contains several critical metals, and spills have led to major environmental incidents. Researchers are presently targeting the full value chain, from BR to recovered metals and new building materials.
The mining sector has always been an important one for our society, keeping economies and individual households alive. The downside, however, is that mining activities continue to produce enormous amounts of tailings, i.e. the waste from the mining industry. These were, and still are, disposed of in tailing ponds or (safer) tailings storage facilities. Research has indicated this waste can potentially damage our environment by releasing toxic metals and contaminating soil and water supplies. In order to transform the ‘extractive-waste problem’ into a ‘resource-recovery opportunity’, the European Training Network for the Remediation and Reprocessing of Sulphidic Mining Waste (SULTAN) is pooling the necessary interdisciplinary and intersectoral expertise.
Among other things, these highly qualified SULTAN experts will explore eco-friendly mining chemicals to be used in advanced metal-extraction and recovery. What is more, a unique soft-skills training programme is set up aiming to maximize the impact and dissemination of their findings.
Earlier we discussed how techniques are appropriated to be able to reuse waste as a fuel source for electric vehicles (EVs). Clearly, reducing our consumption of fossil fuels and the need for clean and reusable energy sources to power those EVs are absolute musts in our quest to limit global warming and stay within safe levels. But what about those EVs themselves? At the moment, large parts of EVs cannot be recycled yet. Enter DEMETER (Training Network for the Design and Recycling of Rare-Earth Permanent Magnet Motors and Generators in Hybrid and Full Electric Vehicles), a research project in which colleagues from Valeo, a French global automotive supplier, have successfully designed the world's first recycled electric motor.
What is more, the team of researchers also managed to create a solution to recycle neodymium, a critical rare earth element that lies at the core of the permanent magnet of any electric motor. As we cannot mine neodymium in Europe, we are dependent upon outside sources. Now we are able to reuse the element, it makes us less vulnerable to its extreme price volatility.
Zero Waste journey
From recuperating minerals and metals from landfills and turning them into bricks or fuel, to exploring eco-friendly mining chemicals and designing and recycling electric motors: KU Leuven’s ambition to challenge our environment’s alarming status quo in their journey to a Zero Waste future has thus far proven successful. However, the research teams’ work is far from completed. In other words: keep your eyes peeled for more innovative projects and out-of-the-box thinking and improvement in order to make our world a better, more sustainable place.