Shifts in Materials' Production and Selection February 2015
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Materials technology underpins all critical products and services. Buildings, infrastructure, food, transportation, consumer electronics, and health-care solutions all rely on materials engineering. Driven by technology advances, environmental issues, geopolitics, and a quest for performance improvements, the materials in use in and under development for use in critical applications continue to change. These shifts in materials' production and selection have the potential to change value chains across multiple industries.
Major shifts are occurring in materials production and materials selection, and these shifts have the power to create significant change across numerous industry sectors.
A desire to reduce construction and running costs is driving the evolution of building materials in some countries. In France, HLM (Habitation à Loyer Modéré) is a form of rent-controlled public housing. HLM projects require low-cost construction and low running costs, and the use of straw as a building material could help builders meet these requirements. Wood-and-straw buildings comprise prefabricated straw components attached to a wooden frame. Proponents claim that straw costs less than cellulose fiber and only slightly more than polystyrene, which has a more problematic environmental footprint than straw does. In 2011, France's Agence Qualité Construction (Agency for Construction Quality; Paris, France) issued standards and certification for constructing wood-and-straw housing, enabling qualified builders to offer the ten-year guarantees on wood-and-straw buildings that all new buildings require by French law. France's stock of such houses has gone from 700 to 3500 in three years, and architects have started creating wood-and-straw buildings for HLM projects. The Jules Ferry Residence—a groundbreaking wood-and-straw HLM housing development in Saint-Dié-des-Vosages, France—uses heat pumps, heat exchangers for ventilation, geothermal energy, and a design for maximum external solar input to meet 95% of its heating needs (space heating and water heating) without using fossil-fuel-based energy. For tenants, charges for water and heating are reportedly as low as $15 per month. This increasing use of straw as a building material is particularly interesting because it combines a very traditional material (straw) and prefabrication. As the previous Scan™ article Beyond Straw, Chips, and Pulp discusses, agricultural and forestry processes produce an abundance of waste materials, and doing something economically beneficial with these waste products is quite challenging.
Scan™ has charted the emergence of a number of disruptive materials technologies—in particular, the development of carbon-based materials. As the previous Scan™ article A New Age in Materials highlights, materials technology is changing rapidly. And materials in use in commercial applications, not just materials under development in laboratories, are experiencing these rapid changes. In addition, the previous Scan™ article Incredible Materials notes that game-changing materials are creeping off the laboratory bench and heading toward important commercial applications. In May 2014, OCSiAl (Luxembourg, Luxembourg) announced the development of a new synthetic process for the large-scale commercial production of single-wall carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs). OCSiAl estimates that its new pilot production facility will be able to produce about 1 ton of SWCNTs in the first year of its operation, doubling the current global production of SWCNTs. OCSiAl claims that its technology is scalable and will cut the cost of SWCNTs from tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram to $2000 per kilogram. The combination of lower cost and large-scale production volumes could enable numerous commercial opportunities—for example, batteries, conductive composites and films, and nanoscale polymer-matrix composites. Of course, OCSiAl must prove that its approaches are wholly viable and scalable before such a change can occur.
Rare-earth metals—in particular, neodymium and dysprosium—are important enablers for powerful magnets that see use in high-temperature motors such as those in wind-turbine generators and electric vehicles. The previous Scan™ article Rare Metals, issued warnings about about the availability of these materials—in particular, that China mines, processes, and controls the supply of almost all rare-earth metals. High costs and environmental challenges make processing the ore to create metals difficult for other countries. In the United States, start-up company Infinium (Natick, Massachusetts) is developing new metal-processing approaches with a focus on rare-earth materials. Metal processors convert ores (metal oxides) into metals by immersing the oxides in molten salts and then running electricity through the mixture. Conventional processes use carbon electrodes, which create carbon dioxide. Infinium has created electrodes using ceramic material—specifically, zirconium oxide—and also has developed alternative molten salts that do not react with the zirconium oxide. Infinium's process promises to produce far smaller amounts of carbon-dioxide emissions than conventional metals-production processes do. The company plans to build a plant that will produce 10 tonnes of rare-earth materials per year; although this quantity sounds small, rare-earth materials typically see use in extremely small concentrations. Reportedly, the company's first client is the US government, which wants to stockpile these strategically important materials. If Infinium's process proves economically viable, it could have a big commercial impact on many industries—perhaps reducing the environmental impact and cost of producing metals such as aluminium or magnesium.
Environmental factors and forces are making industries change the way they think about materials. In May 2014, Airbus (Blagnac, France) announced that it had set up the Airbus Composite Recycling Advisory Board in a bid to establish a strategy and road map to deal with the recycling and reuse of composite materials. Airbus hopes that the new board will enable new techniques for the large-scale recycling and reuse of composite products from end-of-life aircraft.
However, companies must assess all changes carefully: Environmental and corporate-responsibility campaign group As You Sow (Oakland, California) recently placed pressure on the world's largest snack-food company, Mondelēz International (Deerfield, Illinois), to change its packaging from unrecyclable plastics to cardboard. However, plastics-industry experts believe that a move to recyclable plastics would be better. Indeed, a report commissioned by the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (Ontario, Canada) and the American Chemistry Council (Washington, DC) shows that cardboard packaging would require an energy demand that is 80% higher than that of plastic packaging.
Materials technology is largely evolutionary; however, major shifts are occurring in materials production and materials selection, and these shifts have the power to create significant change across numerous industry sectors. Companies must navigate this changing environment carefully.