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Argonne National Laboratory

About Science for a Circular Economy

In a circular economy, waste streams from primary and energy sources would be routinely reused in ways not possible today, and we would work vigorously to reduce our use of primary resources. This vision could one day become reality with help from researchers at Argonne National Laboratory aided by its world-class user facilities.

The transformation to a circular economy is important for national, economic and environmental security. For example, as everyone knows, plastics are polluting the entire globe. Over the last 50 years, the world has generated over six metric tons of plastic waste, and the amount is growing every year. Most of it is now gathering in landfills or littering the environment, and the growing amount of carbon dioxide in our environment is a major threat to our planet’s sustainability. What’s more, today the U.S. imports its entire supply of 17 commodity minerals, including manganese, used in lithium‐ion batteries and steels, and rare earths, used in magnets. There is thus an urgent need in the U.S. for new sustainable technologies with little or none of these critical minerals.

Argonne has big plans for designing material functions and chemical reaction pathways that consider both (1) input resources and possible substitutions and (2) product end of use. Argonne is focusing on innovations in materials design and chemical processes within the following areas: 

  • Polymers. Designing plastics for recycling, finding inexpensive ways to separate mixtures of plastics, innovating new ways to deconstruct plastics and determining the environmental impact of plastic waste.
  • Carbon dioxide capture and conversion. Pursuing various methods to generate value‐added products from carbon dioxide captured from the environment. 
  • Microelectronic heterostructures (microelectronic devices that are composed of many different layers that together define the device behavior). Developing capabilities to design zipper‐like interfaces between the layers in microelectronic devices so they can easily be dismantled” and the components recycled.
  • Quantum materials. Designing and producing quantum materials without commodity minerals for the upcoming quantum economy, and reducing damaging effects of mining for these materials. 
  • Batteries. Reducing the demand for critical materials and improving supply chain security for battery manufacturing and developing ways to reuse batteries at their end of life to make new batteries.

New Argonne capabilities for investigating these areas will include not only computational tools to design functional materials for manufacturing circularity with benign environmental impact, but also high‐throughput experimental tools combined with artificial intelligence to elucidate material creation and degradation pathways. We also plan dedicated laboratories for polymer design, deconstruction and rapid end‐of‐life testing. 

Argonne will also tap into the many partnering opportunities in the surrounding region. We will pursue research on recycling, remanufacturing, recovery, reuse and redesign in collaboration with the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois and regional industry. We also plan to establish polymer design laboratories at Argonne’s second location in the City of Chicago to facilitate interactions with startups and further STEM education outreach. These collaborations will support our long‐term goal for Midwest manufacturers to be leaders in sustainable production.