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The role of Thermodynamics on the evaluation of the depletion of RAW materials

Materials.Business Newsletter ⚙️ November 30th, 2023


Podcast Guest: Alicia Valero Delgado

Summary of the discussion

In this thought-provoking discussion, Alicia and Monica, a metallurgist and an expert in thermodynamics, shed light on the critical issue of raw material depletion and its far-reaching implications. The conversation explores the individual's role in the face of environmental challenges, the complexities in the materials industry, and the global impact of material scarcity. As we celebrate one year of engaging in discussions on material business, this episode provides valuable insights into the urgent need for sustainable practices and a reconnection with nature. The highlights of the discussion are:

Depletion of Critical Raw Materials: Alicia and Monica, spoke about the depletion of essential raw materials, particularly those crucial for anti-corrosive materials used in metallurgy. Specific focus is placed on the increasing demand for resources from the Earth, including both common materials like steel and copper, as well as rare materials necessary for the energy transition, such as those used in wind turbines and thin-film photovoltaics. The need for a "part-to-part" strategy and avoiding mixing materials that hinder recycling efficiency is emphasized.

Challenges in Recycling and End-of-Life Technologies: The conversation emphasizes the difficulty of recycling due to the dispersion of materials. It's pointed out that while recycling is essential, achieving a truly circular economy is thermodynamically challenging.
End-of-life technologies are still in the early stages of development, and there's a need for significant research to make recycling economically feasible. The importance of designing products with end-of-life considerations in mind is highlighted and the need for a "part-to-part" strategy and avoiding mixing materials that hinder recycling efficiency is emphasized.

Back to the Roots and Future Efficiency: The speakers stressed the necessity of transitioning towards a more efficient and sustainable approach, drawing on the past for inspiration. A call is made for designing products with simplicity and efficiency, citing the example of a clay Jack ("la botija"), emphasizing local materials, ease of repair, and fostering a sense of community. Industries, particularly the automotive and electronics sectors, are urged to rethink their production processes, adopt part-to-part strategies, and consider the end-of-life phase as a source of spare parts rather than waste. This shift is seen as essential for economic feasibility and environmental well-being.

Individual Action in the Face of Material Depletion: The conversation explores what individuals, as normal citizens without specialized knowledge, can do in the face of material depletion and environmental challenges.
Emphasis is placed on making small yet impactful changes in daily life, such as opting for public transportation, biking to work, or buying locally sourced products. The importance of setting an example for others and fostering a sense of community is highlighted.

Global Material Depletion and Strategic Elements: The conversation expands to the global perspective, discussing the increasing size of critical raw material lists and the challenges associated with material scarcity.
Security of supply becomes a critical issue, with some countries gaining power by controlling resources. The need for countries to rethink industrial strategies and move toward local sourcing is highlighted to avoid overreliance on specific nations.

The speakers stressed the importance of awareness, not just about climate change but also about material scarcity and sustainability. The transition to sustainability requires an ethical approach, considering social, environmental, and economic aspects. The need for education and awareness in universities is underlined, encouraging a holistic understanding of the world's interconnectedness.

Reconnecting with Nature and Urgency for Change: The conversation concludes with a powerful message, urging individuals and societies to reconnect with nature. There's a call for change, emphasizing that although there is still time to make a difference, action needs to be taken as soon as possible. Reconnecting with nature is presented as the key to a sustainable and harmonious future for all.

From individual actions and challenges in the materials industry to the global ramifications of scarce resources, the conversation touches on the importance of ethical awareness and the imperative to reconnect with nature. As the material business community reflects on its first-year milestone, this discussion serves as a poignant reminder of the collective responsibility to address these pressing issues and work towards a sustainable future.

Dr. Alicia Valero Delgado is a senior researcher and head of the industrial ecology group at the Research Centre for Energy Resources and Consumption (CIRCE - Institute) and associate professor at the University of Zaragoza in the Mechanical Engineering Department. Her research has focused on identifying resource efficiency measures and applying thermodynamics in evaluating resource depletion, a subject from which she has received four international awards. She studied chemical engineering at the University of Zaragoza, finishing her education at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse and the TU Berlin. Shortly afterward, she became a junior researcher at Siemens Power Generation in Berlin and a consultant at Pricewaterhouse Coopers (Madrid). She entered the Research Centre for Energy Resources and Consumption (CIRCE) in 2003 and finished her PhD in 2008 with a research stay at the British Geological Survey. She is the author or co-author of over 100 papers in international journals and book chapters relating to analyzing and optimizing energy and using raw materials. Together with her father, Antonio Valero, she developed Thanatia's theory.

Credit of the picture: Neima Pidal
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Key dates:
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