Circular Materials

The increase in the world's population coupled with rising prosperity and numerous product innovations leads to the manufacture and use of more and more products. In addition, the end-of-life of products is being reached earlier and earlier through targeted marketing and planned obsolescence. These developments cause an increasing demand for material resources. For example, in 1960, less than 20 billion tons of materials were used; in 2015, the figure was already 84 billion tons, and 184 billion tons are forecast for 2050 [European Commission, Raw Materials Scoreboard 2018]. At the same time, more and more supply-critical technology metals (e.g., indium, SSE, gallium, silver, and lithium) are being used in future products (e.g., for renewable energies, robotics, digitalization). The demand for these has increased dramatically in recent years. The "life history" of the materials has many stations (see figure), begins with mining, and still too often ends as waste in landfills - usually even "disposed of" in nature. Especially the mentioned technology metals have mostly recycling rates below 1 %. Even when recycling the products' main components, they mostly end up only as filling material in road construction.

Sustainable for the future

Starting with the mining of the materials and ending with the use of the products, there are further material losses, and very high energy input is necessary, which contributes significantly to climate change.

The circular economy, on the other hand, strives to recycle materials. In this context, the materials can be recycled within the entire products (re-use), within components of the products (re-manufacturing), or separated (recycling). All three of the re-routes mentioned above involve numerous material science issues. Re-use of products includes, for example, minimizing aging processes (such as corrosion, diffusion, and cracking). To obtain components from products or to be able to separate the individual materials, it is necessary to dissolve material compounds or composites up to the separation of alloy components. To simplify these steps, a recycling-friendly structure of products is essential. For sorting the different material fractions before the actual reprocessing, methods for material recognition are then crucial. Finally, for the last step in the recycling chain described above - namely the processing of the separated material fractions into secondary raw materials - materials science know-how is also essential for the efficiency and thus the cost-effectiveness of the processes. In addition, the supply criticality of materials, among other things, is evaluated in the context of the Circular Economy. In this context, the development of suitable substitutes for very scarce material resources used in critical future technologies is another important material science challenge. In addition, materials scientists will have to consider new combinations of elements for recycling materials, for example, when aluminum alloys have been mixed with small amounts of e-waste due to poor separation. Even the most basic thermodynamic data are often lacking to describe such compositions.

To be able to address these complex issues, new activities in the DGM and the collection of previous actions in a separate technical committee would be helpful. At present, such a committee is missing in Germany. The classic topics described above, such as corrosion protection, process, and material design and recycling, must be considered in the technical committee in the context of repair, the influence of impurities on material properties, or the use of hydrogen. Specifically, a DGM discussion forum is currently lacking for questions such as "What influence does a corrosion protection layer have on recycling?" or "How do you design lightweight alloys with high tolerance to impurities - and from which material streams do the impurities originate?". Another task of such a technical committee could be to bring important knowledge from non-technical fields such as business administration, economics, law, and sociology to the technically and scientifically trained players, leading to an understanding of where material science innovations are needed and how materials and processes can be evaluated in terms of sustainability.


  • Discussion forum for cross-cutting issues:

    • Assessment (economics, criticality, material flows, CO2 equivalent).

    • Data (material data, process data, product data)

    • Continuing education (in FA, in DGM, as advanced training)

    • Policy (regulation and laws, market)

  • Exchange about current projects in Germany

  • Networking of material scientists working in the field of Circular Economy

  • Create visibility of the DGM in the area of Circular Economy

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