Welcome to the great materials ‘Squid Game’
One of my favorite TV shows of 2021 was Squid Game. Set in South Korea, it involves a group of contestants taking part in complex challenges for the chance to win a life-changing cash prize. Those who fail don’t just lose the game; they are put to death. Because they are in huge debt, the contestants have little choice but to take part – carrying on as normal is not an option.
As a specialist in renewable chemistry, this desperate situation reminds me of what’s currently unfolding in materials science: everyone is looking for that one, perfect solution that will save the world (and capture the imagination of investors) – whether that’s based on low carbon, renewable feedstocks (like biomass, captured carbon or recycled content), or circular design processes that include sustainable end-of-life solutions.
It seems that for any single material to “win the game,” the other options on the table all need to be eliminated.
Borrowing from another era
One thing everyone can agree on, however, is the need to move away from fossil-based raw materials.
For more than 200 years, oil, gas, and coal have been the backbone of societal progress. After all, it’s carbon-based fuels and materials that have helped to propel economic growth, enhance living standards, and enable the global population to expand more than eightfold since the start of the industrial revolution.
But this massive expansion powered by feedstocks we’ve “borrowed” from another epoch has come at a huge cost. It’s only in recent decades we’ve realized the extent to which mankind has disrupted the natural carbon cycle by removing fossil-based resources from the ground, and adding them to the atmosphere.
The problem is, when your entire society runs on fossil-based materials, it’s not so easy to wind back the clock.
No magic bullet
How can we fill this giant, carbon-shaped void? And how can we engineer products to have a lower lifetime impact – from sourcing the raw materials they’re made from to managing end-of-life processes? For some, the solution lies in biomass, a plentiful and fully renewable resource. Others see captured CO2 as the answer, and a natural evolution from society’s current carbon dependence. Look elsewhere, and you’ll find researchers excitedly discussing how recycled materials offer solutions for all manner of products – and can solve society’s waste problem in the process.
Rather than being used in combination, different materials and approaches are being pitted against one another in the race to find the single perfect material solution for our future society. The recycling industry, for instance, cites the amount of land and resources needed to produce biomass, while biomass specialists respond by listing the limitations of recycling, and pointing out how little of society’s waste is currently being reused.
Solving the materials challenge, one puzzle at a time
This kind of dog-eat-dog thinking, however, isn’t helpful. We may be starting to transition out of the fossil-fuel era, but we’re still very much in the trial-and-error stage. The suggestion that we’re about to stumble across some magic, one-size-fits-all solution to all our problems is wildly optimistic.
For a more realistic approach, the materials transition needs to be less Squid Game and more like an “Escape Room”, the live role-playing concept where teams work together in pursuit of a single, shared goal: getting out of the room. The only way to meet this overall challenge is to solve lots of smaller, individual puzzles with varying degrees of difficulty. Once all the puzzles are solved, the door to the room opens to reveal the prize. In this scenario, everybody wins, and nobody dies.
Puzzles in the Escape Room can’t be skipped, but at the start of the game, no one knows which ones will lead to the end solution and which will turn out to be irrelevant. This is how we should approach the current materials challenge: we need to work as a team to solve all the different individual puzzles in our path. Nor can we speed up our path to the solution by skipping over potential solutions that don’t look quite so promising – it’s still too early to decide which ones will work and which won’t.
Once we have identified all the workable solutions (and eliminated the unworkable ones) … that’s when we can start creating combinations that will open the exit door to our current predicament.
50 shades of green
Another pop culture reference I find useful when describing the materials challenge is ‘50 shades of green.’ Sustainability is often viewed in binary terms: a material is either “green” or it isn’t. But, at this stage in the journey, we can’t afford to ignore any potential solution, however raw or imperfect it might be.
Take recycled feedstocks. As it stands, only about 6% of all waste is reprocessed to make new materials, but to say recycling isn’t a viable “green” option is misleading. It may be a very light green right now, but – with new technologies and increased government support – there’s no reason why it can’t turn a much deeper shade of green in the future.
This kind of thinking can be applied to any type of feedstock or material. To solve society’s long-term sustainability challenges, we need all the solutions we can get our hands on – we shouldn’t close the door on a possible option just because we haven’t yet fully perfected the technology.
Of course, this trial-and-error approach isn’t sexy: Making the best of the different materials we have available won’t get investors excited – and they certainly won’t make TV shows about it – but it’s the most practical route we have to get out of our current carbon predicament.
At Stahl, we’re proud to be part of this global hunt for the pieces of the sustainability puzzle. And we’re looking forward to continuing internal and external collaborations to share our skills and knowledge. Whether it’s through managing our products’ lifecycles, using more recycled and bio-based feedstocks, or reducing waste and emissions across our entire value chain, every day we’re getting one step closer to a future built on renewable chemistry.
Author: Frank Brouwer, Renewable Chemistry Specialist at Stahl
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