“Key factors for post-COVID reactivation are the recycling of materials, greater durability and enhanced energy efficiency”

Date 13-01-2021 Tekniker

The European Commission has released a paper on the role to be played by materials in a post-COVID society that has been written by the European Platform for Advanced Engineering Materials and Technologies and the Materials Alliance (A4M). Our conversation features doctor Amaya Igartua, a Tekniker researcher and also the person in charge of the EUMAT and A4M co-secretariat where solutions and recommendations are being proposed to address these challenges.

1.- Generally speaking, what role will materials play in a post-COVID society?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, material platforms, organisations and companies are meeting new, non-programmed demands in terms of materials. Nowadays, some of the most critical supplies are disinfectants, medical devices, diagnostic tests, ventilators, protective masks, gloves, suits and equipment. As a result of this, chemical and material industries have stretched their capacity to the limit to meet European demand. Consequently, it has been necessary to readjust many activities that were already underway to meet these new needs. 

In order to alleviate shortages in terms of component supplies, for instance, more 3D printing or additive manufacturing have been used to transform materials during production processes and make it possible to combine different raw materials also including recycled products. This trend will be reinforced in the future. Nowadays, the challenge is focused on improving the availability of materials, speed, process quality and surface finishes. Moreover, many coatings featuring antimicrobial properties are being evaluated to rate their anti-viral effectiveness. Due to the current health care emergency, multifunctional materials with additional self-cleaning capabilities are required. 

2.- What solutions and recommendations are being looked into by the European Community of Materials (A4M) to address these challenges?

The European Community of materials has taken into consideration the challenges described hereunder to further the resilience of our European economy and to guarantee raw material savings in terms of product design to enhance functionality and adapt production quality parameters to the needs of different European zones and applications. 

Firstly, it has been stressed that research actions involving materials must be coordinated at the level of the European Commission by upholding a joint strategy, drafting European regulations and developing freely available standards. 

Furthermore, efforts must be made to boost research aimed at increasing the durability and energy efficiency in the process of transforming materials using a circular strategy to minimise the carbon footprint. In this manner, and by predicting material life cycles during use and improving energy efficiency, environmental, economic and social impacts will be minimised.

What has also been highlighted is how important it is to combine experimentation and modelling, to generate data bases and use artificial inteliggence tools to obtain better research outcomes. For this reason, it will be necessary to carry out further research in materials applied to information, communication and telecommunications (ICT). Among others, quantum technologies (cryptography, for instance) offer a very interesting option that facilitates traceability. 

It will also be crucial to design devices ready to be recycled, to incorporate secondary materials resulting from recycling to be qualified and regulated appropriately so they may perform their functions. It will also be necessary to develop new materials and surfaces that are smart, functional and ecological and can interact with the environment and supply information.

And, lastly, it will be necessary to foster ethics in science transversally to help reactivate our society in cooperation with its citizens and member states.

3.- What strategic material research programmes are underway in Europe?  Is Tekniker involved in any of them?

A large number of strategic research actions are being carried out in Europe in the field of advanced materials and Tekniker, a member of the Basque Research and Technology Alliance (BRTA), is playing an outstanding role in several of these projects.

Europe is actively pursuing the development of bioproducts (i.e., biolubricants, biofuels, bioplastics) based on raw materials originating from biomass. In this regard, and thanks to the Biosmart project, coordinated by Tekniker, we are developing smart biobased packaging with anti-microbial surfaces to extend packaged food shelf life and minimize waste.

As far as surfaces are concerned, and thanks to our experience with regard to manufacturing and characterising antibacterial, hygienic and biocidal surfaces, we are currently working to develop surface treatments that minimise the propagation of viruses and bacteria, something very important for all of us at this point in time. Likewise, and in order to properly deal with the coronavirus, we are also participating in the development of an alternative to PCR testing in the form of a genetic kit for the rapid and safe detection of SARS-CoV-2.

As regards green energies, Europe is promoting the development of materials for generation (wind, photovoltaic, solar thermal, for instance) and for the storage of renewables (batteries, hydrogen, salts) that Tekniker has rated as key drivers.

In Europe, moreover, research actions are currently focusing on extending material life cycles, improving energy efficiency through experimentation, production modelling, product operation and performance. For instance, and thanks to the European i-TRIBOMAT initiative, the technology centre and several other partners are connecting different tribological machines via the Internet to reproduce failure mechanisms of components in laboratories to predict a material’s behaviour in different applications.

As regards research actions related to advanced manufacturing, the potential that additive manufacturing offers is being exploited by means of programmes focused on using alternative materials and improving process capabilities in terms of speed, accuracy and surface quality. In this area, Tekniker has developed a new additive manufacturing machine that can make large metal structures by depositing coaxial metallic wire with laser technology, specifically thanks to the Laser Metal Deposition technique. With this machine, it is possible to manufacture parts based on Ti, Fe, Ni, Al, alloys, etc. It has also been designed to operate under different atmospheric conditions, in air (normal conditions), in Ar and He atmospheres and vacuum with less than 5 bars of pressure.

4.- In the paper, mention is also made of the circular economy or green energies to achieve socioeconomic reactivations from the materials perspective. What is the relationship between materials and post-COVID reactivation?

As a consequence of increasing populations and higher consumption levels, there will not be enough primary materials available. Therefore, it will become more necessary than ever before to recycle and produce secondary materials that can be reutilised and employed in the manufacture of new products and processes. 

Tribology knowledge, will be required to carry out the material substitution with the necessary guarantee to minimize failures during use. This science will allow to predict material durability at the laboratory, translating the operating conditions of mechanical elements in relative motion to evaluate how materials will behave in the real application.

Europe and the Technology Centre have a solid commitment in terms of recycling. At Tekniker, for instance, we are currently working on recycling composites and developing coatings with self-cleaning, anti-erosion and anti-freeze properties to increase the durability of wind turbine blades and airplane wings.

Lastly, we must be aware of the fact that there will not be enough fossil fuels available to power internal combustion engines. We must therefore improve energy efficiency in designs, materials, coatings and fluids for their use with renewables produced by wind, photovoltaic, solar, thermal, biofuels, batteries, hydrogen, etc.


Download now the complete paper entitled “The role of Materials in a post-COVID society” [ENGLISH]

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