Research program I:
Circular Economy in the
Chemical and Materials Industry

The current consumer economy operates on a linear model of extract-produce-consumer-throw away. This yields an economy whose negative externalities grow as demand grows. The purpose of the Circular Economy is to reduce, reuse, and recycled materials to ensure more value is extracted from our use of natural resources. The goal of this project is to develop innovation roadmaps for the chemical industry that facilitate a circular economy. The focus of the first roadmaps is plastic packaging. Research methods developed for plastic packaging roadmaps will then be applied in the future to other applications and materials. Our approach has been to

We have engaged over 300 corporate, NGO, government, and academic stakeholders to review our work and gain insight from it.

The program consists of two main projects, as shown above, which interact with one another: Innovation Roadmaps for Circular Plastic; and Circular Chemical Value Chain Design.

Presently, we have begun to examine circular innovation in non-packaging plastic applications, such as consumer, medical, construction, and automotive products.

Research project I.1: Innovation Roadmaps for Circular Plastics

The over-arching question of this research project is: Which innovations are most critical to invest in to achieve greater circularity in the plastic value chain. We define a circular innovation as one that (a) enhances re-use or recycling, (b) enables use of renewable feedstocks for plastic and other secondary materials, (c) enables or enhances waste stewardship for plastic and other secondary materials, and (d) utilizes sustainable social value creation and sustainability outcomes as informative design guides. A circular innovation can be a practice that is a physical process, business process, or a policy that it is documented in public domain and is not widely adopted yet. By knowing which innovations are most critical, we can focus investment of money, attention, and creative energy at the things that will make the biggest impact. This is being pursued in five steps: (1) create value chain map of plastic packaging, (2) defined circular innovation, (3) identify circular innovations, (4) engage stakeholders, (5) develop various innovation roadmaps.

Research activities over the last 2.5 years have completed steps 1-4, as indicated above, and are now developing several different types of innovation roadmaps. To learn how different disciplinary perspectives can be used together in developing and innovation roadmap, we have used convergence science to develop a roadmap for plastic grocery bags. We have modeled the environmental impacts (using LCA), the effect of different stakeholder perspectives (using LCA optimization models), the willingness to pay for recycled materials (using economic modeling), and the social and organizational networks needed to make recycling work. Additionally, we have used backcasting to specify an ideal future state where bioplastic is dominant and derived a roadmap from the current actions of companies in the consumer goods industry. We have presented and gotten feedback from our work from over 300 corporate, NGO, government, and academic stakeholders.

Future work includes (1) Releasing our innovation database on the ASU Global Futures web site, (2) collect historical data to further verify our economic modeling scrap plastic prices with physical attributes of the recovered material, (3) implement a second round of a survey of subject matter experts to assess opinions concerning circular innovations, and (4) engage with stakeholders, publishing and presenting our work, networking with other initiatives, and seeking additional external funding.

Research project I.2: Circular Chemical Value Chain Design

In order to create products and their corresponding value chains that are more circular, we need to integrate the design of chemical reaction networks, value-chains and economic cash flows, as shown in a representative case in the figure below.  Each feasible pathway in the multi-scale network is called a solution. A set of all such possible solutions constitutes a superstructure network. The parameters used to quantify such networks are obtained from life-cycle inventory data, private reports, economic accounts of a country, etc. These parameters are usually found from recorded national average values of flows in the value-chain and the economy.

Multi-scale superstructure network for converting biomass based Itaconic acid to 3-methyl tetrahydrofuran

We have used the Process-to-planet and Reaction-Network-Flux frameworks for pathway design of multi-scale networks. Results from the previous presentation comprised of a ‘pareto front’, which contained the trade-off solutions between environmental and economic objectives, namely Global Warming Potential (GWP) and Life-cycle cost (LCC) respectively.

We have received funding from the US REMADE program to expand this work to sheet molded composites. This will enable us to explore how this methodology needs to be modified to cover multiple material modeling scenarios.

Research project I.3: Transitioning of the Chemical and Materials Industry to a Sustainable Circular Enterprise

In this project we examine the proposition that decarbonizing the Chemicals and Materials Industry (CMI) to meet the Paris Agreement goals is impossible without the transformation of the Industry into a Sustainable Circular Chemicals and Materials Industry (CCMI). CMI is defined as the set of industrial activities, which cover the transformation of raw material deposits in earth to consumer products, and include cement, iron and steel, non-ferrous materials (aluminum, magnesium, nickel, copper, rare earths, others), chemicals (organic and inorganic) and polymeric materials. Of particular significance for this paper are the following sectors of the CMI: cement, iron and steel, thermoplastics, and ammonia. These sectors are hard to abate, due to their relatively high share of emissions from feedstocks, and high-temperature heat compared to other sectors.

Decarbonization of CMI is technically feasible, even though technical and economical hurdles exist. However, given the prevailing constraints from existing industrial infrastructure, limitations in the growth of zero-carbon electricity, limitations in the sustainably available biomass, and the competition for renewable energy by other sectors of the economy, notably buildings and transportation, industry cannot achieve the Paris Agreement solely on the basis of technological solutions. Furthermore, extensive research on the decoupling of GDP from resource utilization indicates that it is impossible to meet the Paris Agreement goals with observed historical rates of decoupling.  Decoupling needs to be complemented by sufficiency-oriented strategies and strict enforcement of absolute reduction targets.

Sufficiency-oriented strategies and strict enforcement of absolute reduction targets, which would lead to meeting the Paris Agreement goals, can only achieved by the transformation of the economy into a Sustainable Circular Economy. The transition of the economy into a Sustainable Circular one, is completely dependent on the transition of CMI into a CCMI.

Furthermore, individual companies cannot transform the CMI to CCMI on their own. Chief Technology Officers (CTO) are well aware of this. This is why CTOs and experts from more than a dozen of the world’s largest chemical companies gathered in summer 2019 to forge new paths. All of them share the goal of dramatically reducing their industry’s carbon footprint. They are eager to explore new approaches or even legal bodies and structures that can accelerate this development. However, what they underestimate is the set of constraints, which impose a paradigm shift from open-chain CMI to circular CCMI. One of the objectives of the proposed initiative is to introduce a new paradigm of the future CMI, which will be based on drastically different and far more attractive business models for the operation of the CMI companies.

The research in this project aims to do the following:

Collaborations

Research personnel

Kevin Dooley (ASU), Raj Buch (ASU), Bhavik Bakshi (OSU)

George Basile (ASU), Matt Scholz (ASU)

Jeff Englin (ASU)

    (d)    PhD and MS research assistants

  Fatima Hafsa (ASU), Vyom Thakker (OSU)

Publications

  1. Papers in peer-reviewed journals
  2. Thakker, V. and Bakshi, B. (2021), “Toward sustainable circular economies: A computational framework for assessment and design,” Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 295, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0959652621005734
  3. Thakker, V. and Bakshi, B. (2021), “Multi-scale sustainable engineering: Integrated design of reaction networks, life cycles, and economic sectors,” under first review at Computers and Chemical Engineering.
  4. Hafsa, F., Dooley, K., Basile, G., and Buch, R. (2021), “Innovations for more circular plastic packaging”, under second review at Journal of Cleaner Production.

Workshops, webinars and seminars:

Software: Produced from the research activities