Skip to main content

Six steps to a better material world

  • 05 December 2011

Caius Fellow Dr Julian Allwood and his research team at the Department of Engineering have released a six-part manifesto for drastically reducing a fifth of the world’s carbon emissions, caused by the production of materials like aluminium and steel. Their research has been featured in the BBC News Magazine and on the University of Cambridge Research News site.

"Every aspect of our lives today depends on materials like steel and aluminium. If we want a sustainable future, we need to reduce the impact of producing them."

Dr Julian Allwood

The manifesto is at the core of a new study by a team of eight researchers, who spent three years working with industry and manufacturers to find out how our demand for vital materials can be made more sustainable in the future.

Their findings are being published as a book, Sustainable Materials With Both Eyes Open, which can be read for free online. In an effort to communicate their ideas as widely as possible, the group has also broken new musical territory by releasing an album of songs about them.Samples from the 12-track recording “With Both Eyes Open”, which purports to be “the first album written for the 300 million people worldwide who convert metal ores into finished buildings, vehicles and goods”, can be found here, and the album is available from Amazon.

At heart, the research has a deeply serious message. Most of what we use on a day-to-day basis depends on producing energy intensive materials – metals, ceramics and polymers. At the start of the 20th century, global production of these materials was virtually nothing. Now we make 10 times our own bodyweight of steel, aluminium, cement, plastics and paper every year, for every person alive, and it costs us a fifth of all the world’s energy to do so.

This brings with it a number of problems, such as associated land stress and demand for water. The most pressing issue, however, is that materials production involves burning fossil fuels and putting CO2 into the atmosphere. The team of researchers, all from the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, set out to find ways to make materials production more sustainable in a way that will have a real impact on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 50-85% of 1990 levels by 2050.

This is easier said than done: “Energy intensive industry is already highly motivated to reduce its energy consumption because energy purchasing is about one third of its costs,” Dr Julian Allwood, who led the research team and specialises in low carbon materials research, says. “Overall, it doesn’t have many further efficiency options left, and we also have to face the fact that demand for these materials is growing, and likely to double if unchecked.”

"We wanted to consider whether we could cut emissions by reducing the amount of stuff produced in the first place. Every aspect of our lives today depends on materials like steel and aluminium. If we want a sustainable future, we need to reduce the impact of producing them, and our biggest option for achieving this is to reduce our thirst for new material.”

The book identifies a raft of options for reducing our demand for materials production, most of which have received very little attention. Although the study looks individually at cement, plastic and paper, at its heart is a list of six steps which could make huge changes to the carbon footprints of the aluminium and steel industries. In summary these are as follows (more details can be found here):

1. Use less metal by design. The researchers argue that we use more material than we need in areas such as construction, car manufacturing, and the production of food cans.

2. Reduce yield losses. Some industries waste a large fraction of the material they originally receive due to “off-cuts”. The book suggests several ways of refining processes to limit this effect.

3. Divert manufacturing scrap. Does scrap metal really need to be scrapped? The researchers argue that in many cases it could be given to other companies or remoulded at room temperatures instead.

4. Re-use old components rather than recycle them. Car dismantlers are already doing this, but other industries could be doing it more, with re-use of steel in construction looking particularly attractive.

5. Extend the lives of products. Goodbye, in-built obsolescence – we could and should be refining products to extend their life-cycles.

6. Reduce final demand. Could we make a difference individually by using less stuff? The answer is unquestionably yes – but whether we are prepared to is a different matter. The researchers found no evidence that we would be any less happy if we did, however.

Overall, the impact of making all or a number of these changes could be huge. By optimising steel beams for buildings, for example, the researchers reckon we could cut the emissions caused by producing these beams by about 30%. Similarly, taking a series of measures to reduce yield losses would lead to an estimated 16% reduction of CO2 emissions in the steel industry, and 7% in the aluminium industry.

Allwood and his team are now focusing not just on releasing their findings, but on encouraging manufacturers and other companies to develop real-life case-studies that show these changes can be made to the way our materials are produced. For example, the researchers are already working with a supermarket chain on the construction of a new outlet made entirely from old materials (point 5).

“The aim now is to get this connected to policy,” he adds. “My job is really to try to trigger demonstrations of how these ideas could work. I think that everyone has a fear of something that has never been tried before. If we can provide examples that people can copy, then it greatly reduces the barrier that stops governments and companies from implementing these ideas and helping them to spread.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.

Share Share