Imagine 10 million people, each drinking a bottle of water a day and then deciding on what to do with the container. Do they throw it in the trash, toss it to the gutter or recycle it?
This isn’t a far-fetched scenario. In fact, U.S. consumers purchased nearly 50 billion water bottles in 2018, or about 137 million bottles a day, according to one estimate.
That’s just water bottles. And that’s just in the United States.
We live in a disposable society where many products that have some recyclable component never make it to the recycling bin, overwhelming waste streams, contaminating the environment and squandering critical resources.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory is among the advocates of a growing trend called the “circular economy” that shifts us from this linear practice of “produce, use and toss” to an integrated circular strategy of “recover, recycle and reuse,” where products are designed from the beginning to avoid waste and be less harmful.
“Much in the same way we introduce engineering controls to stay safe at work, an environmentally responsible new product is one that is designed from the start to be benign in the environment.” — Cristina Negri, EVS Division Director
The strategy implies a perfect combination of innovation, technology, and consumer and manufacturer mindsets, and ensures that recycling consumes less energy and resources than it does today.
Argonne is bringing to bear the strength of its human and state-of-the-art resources through a recent initiative designed to help power that combination and address pollution, greenhouse gases and climate change head on.
Aligning with new clean energy policies that commit to net-zero carbon emissions, the initiative illustrates the potential to decrease the energy and carbon needed for new products by maintaining those embedded in recycled or reused products.
Argonne’s foray into reshaping the world as a more sustainable and less cluttered place didn’t just begin. When it opened 75 years ago, the lab’s central function was the development of nuclear energy, a key example of zero-emissions energy.
Through the years, Argonne’s research into clean energy and the environment has informed numerous pursuits, from innovations in electric vehicle battery technologies to the development of sustainable manufacturing practices and bioenergy strategies for biofuels.
In 2019, Argonne’s ReCell Center began to employ the concepts of recycling, reuse and materials innovation in a partnership designed to create a more economically viable path toward recycling electric vehicle batteries. “We focus on recovering battery materials when their useful life is complete,” says Jeff Spangenberger, ReCell Center’s director and group leader in materials recycling at Argonne. “Many of these materials were produced outside of the United States, and others are considered critical materials. Oftentimes, they are one and the same.”
According to the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), a DOE Energy Innovation Hub led by Ames Laboratory, some of the materials utilized in energy storage efforts are considered energy-critical elements, the majority of which are extracted from other countries. These include cobalt, which is paramount to Argonne’s work with lithium-ion batteries.
“Cobalt is expensive, hard to get and typically comes from areas where there are political issues involved in extracting these materials,” says Cynthia Jenks, head of the laboratory’s circular economy initiative and director of Argonne’s Chemical Sciences and Engineering (CSE) division. “A large part of our energy storage portfolio in CSE is aimed at reducing the amount of cobalt we use in lithium-ion batteries.”
As an integral part of the lab’s circular economy initiative, Argonne researchers are examining new ways to either recover critical materials or create alternatives for them, helping to make the U.S. resource independent.
“Looking at alternative supply chains for materials is important to different aspects of our work,” adds Jenks. “The concept I like to talk about is urban mining. If we could mine these materials from urban sources — landfills and even recycling centers — then we wouldn’t need to bring in supplies from other countries, which enhances national security.”
Another area of focus is the manufacture of quantum materials, which rely on critical materials and/or rare earth elements to make the superconducting and magnetic components used in many of today’s electronics, from hard drives and computer memory to MRIs.
“There have never been other considerations for how we design quantum materials except to determine which materials have the best properties and behaviors,” says Amanda Petford-Long, division director for the Materials Science Division and an Argonne Distinguished Fellow.
The idea of designing quantum materials with different elements, while taking sustainability into account, is a fairly new one, the rule book for which Argonne researchers will have to write along the way.
New approaches for constructing these materials will rely on Argonne’s suite of DOE Office of Science User Facilities, like the Advanced Photon Source (APS) and Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), both used to understand the specific characteristics and dynamics of materials.
And the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility’s (ALCF) success in melding world-class supercomputers and artificial intelligence (AI) techniques will help researchers whittle down thousands of potential molecules or materials that might impart the same properties as critical materials and are also conducive to recycling.
While it seems like a heavy lift, the work may get a boost from a new administration committed to innovation, including AI and quantum computing.
Building recyclable electronics
In the meantime, your fitness tracker just went on the fritz and you have a decision to make. Do you toss it in the trash or do you find a way to recycle it? If you choose wisely — yes, the correct answer is recycle — the next question, which plagues both manufacturer and consumer alike, is how can it be repurposed?
Microelectronics are the diminutive components that drive personal exercise and health monitors and have made it possible to miniaturize and mobilize our phones, computers and all manner of other electronics.
But like toasters and televisions, even these trendy electronics get chucked into the trash — and with them, valuable materials. Another goal of Argonne’s work towards a circular economy is to redesign these multilayered electronics platforms, or heterostructures, so that they can be easily recycled or reprocessed into new materials.
“They’re all built of lots of layers, where each layer is critical, because if you take any of them out, you change the way the product behaves,” explains Petford-Long. “One of the challenges is, these layers are just a few atoms thick, so how do you separate them out?”
One answer is to “unzip” them, making each layer independent of the others so that at the end-life of an electronic product, each layer that helps power it can be peeled off and reused in the same or a similar product. Working at the atomic level, Argonne’s materials scientists are exploring ways to do just that.
Another effort involves the conservation of material during the manufacturing process. Heterostructure layers are deposited on a substrate, a substantial piece of material like a silicon wafer, that is approximately a thousand times thicker than the actual working layers.
Typically, the manufacturer wants to remove that substrate and just use the very thin layers of the heterostructure, which is difficult to do without dissolving the substrate and wasting the material.
“We’re looking at ways in which you can effectively peel your heterostructure off the substrate, bring it back to the deposition system, grow a new heterostructure on it, peel it off and repeat,” explains Petford-Long.
The same substrate potentially could be used numerous times, saving material resources and money for both the manufacturer and the consumer.
A recent campaign by the American beverage industry, which includes huge competitors like Coca-Cola and Pepsi, is promoting the design of fully recyclable bottles and a commitment to turning old bottles into new ones. The new twist here is that the caps are recyclable, which was not the case until recently.
While the new ads extol the industry’s investments in waste collection and reuse, they still do not address the more glaring issue: What happens to all of the plastic that doesn’t make it to a recycling center?
Despite best efforts, much of this plastic won’t end up there — in 2018, of some 35 million tons of plastics produced in the U.S., less than 9 percent was recycled.
Researchers from across the lab and other research institutions are collaborating on efforts to design plastic material with reuse in mind, focusing on how it might degrade in specific environments and what it might degrade into.
From an industrial perspective, developing plastics in a thoughtful, circular way is not unlike our reusable heterostructure layers; both can be disassembled and reused.
“If you have a molecule made out of LEGOs and you cannot use it as is, you have the technology to take apart all the little LEGO bricks and recompose them into something else,” says Cristina Negri, director of Argonne’s Environmental Science division. “In addition, the idea of ‘upcycling’ lets you use the same starting blocks to make something that has better value.”
An example of upcycling in practice comes from a collaboration between different labs at Argonne. Applying processes invented by chemical scientists to cut plastics apart at the molecular level, applied materials scientists are scaling up this process that turns plastics into automotive lubricants, which have a much higher resale value, explains CSE’s Jenks.
Negri and her colleagues are developing an environmental framework meant to guide the creation of these new polymers and steer manufacturers away from those that pose a potential risk to the environment.
“Much in the same way we introduce engineering controls to stay safe at work, an environmentally responsible new product is one that is designed from the start to be benign in the environment,” says Negri.
While the framework will eventually embrace a number of components, the major focus right now is collecting enough data to inform a database and decision tool.
Scientists creating a new plastic package, for example, would use this database to evaluate the environmental properties of molecules they might be considering for specific applications and help them answer crucial questions. How long will different plastic components take to degrade in different environments? Are they toxic? How will their desirable functional properties work alongside environmental properties?
Like much of the work within the initiative, advances in research will rely on various AI techniques, like algorithms designed to mine data of known chemical properties and their effects, both biological and environmental, to help build the database.
That data could then be analyzed using machine learning methods to predict which materials, molecules or chemical combinations might work best for a given application, like developing customized molecules that are easily dissected for repurposing or upscaling.
Whether it’s developing new plastics or quantum materials, the main goal of a circular economy is to find ways to reversibly use carbon resources. Ironically, producing these energy-intensive materials can still release carbon dioxide (CO2), a primary ingredient of the greenhouse gases implicated in global warming.
Using clean energy will alleviate some of the problem, but even the most ambitious projections have the United States continuing to use some fossil fuels until 2050. Until then, scientists are exploring ways to capture CO2 directly from manufacturing processes and use it to produce new chemicals or products, essentially keeping it locked in an almost-infinite manufacturing loop and out of the atmosphere.
Ksenija Glusac is among a group of researchers working on projects aimed at the development and commercialization of new carbon-conversion processes, the type of research that could be funded under the new administration’s clean energy goals along with incentivizing the use of carbon capture equipment.
“Our direct target is methanol, but we also look at other compounds that can be made from CO2 for use in industry,” says Glusac, an Argonne chemist and associate professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A multipurpose chemical, methanol can be integrated into fuel cells to generate electricity.
A separate collaborative effort between Argonne, Northern Illinois University, the University of North Texas and Angstrom Advanced Inc., is developing an inexpensive method to convert waste CO2 into ethanol, which is used as an ingredient in gasoline, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.
Carbon capture typically refers to the process of recovering CO2 from industrial discharge, but a long-term goal for Glusac and her colleagues is to capture it directly from the air. One of the main roadblocks is in developing a selective “scrubbing” mechanism that would capture CO2 and avoid more essential elements, like oxygen.
“This is something that, for us, is novel because our expertise so far has been in the area of conversion,” says Glusac. “What we are suggesting as a way forward is to combine direct air capture with conversion, but this could take a number of years.”
Putting stock in a new kind of economy
Many of the concepts that define Argonne’s work in the circular economy arena are in their early stages; some of them still in the formulation phase, others put into practice only within the last few years.
The potential for growth and innovation is driven fundamentally by a collaborative spirit that fosters an exchange of ideas between researchers in chemistry, biology and the environmental, materials and computational sciences. As well, Argonne has built and maintains partnerships with industry and academia to help answer real-world problems that face the nation and the environment.
The world-class capabilities of the APS, CNM and ALCF also provide insights into materials design and molecular interactions that are fueling the concepts driving the initiative. And in the future, these resources will be joined by new polymer design laboratories.
A circular economy, one that balances sustainable manufacturing practices with stewardship of the environment, is achievable. Concerted efforts like those taking place at Argonne represent our best chance at creating a healthier economy and a healthier planet.
Funding for this research is provided by Argonne’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program; DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy; DOE’s Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Materials Science and Engineering Division; DOE, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Geosciences and Biosciences Division; DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office; and DOE’s ARPA-E program.
About Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials
The Center for Nanoscale Materials is one of the five DOE Nanoscale Science Research Centers, premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale supported by the DOE Office of Science. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE’s Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. For more information about the DOE NSRCs, please visit https://science.osti.gov/User-Facilities/User-Facilities-at-a-Glance.
The Argonne Leadership Computing Facility provides supercomputing capabilities to the scientific and engineering community to advance fundamental discovery and understanding in a broad range of disciplines. Supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science, Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR) program, the ALCF is one of two DOE Leadership Computing Facilities in the nation dedicated to open science.
About the Advanced Photon Source
The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.
This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.