Circular Economy Goes Metal

SCI-MAT is the LUT’s new platform for bridging metallurgy industry and separation science – with an eye on sustainable business solutions

Metals and minerals are emerging as an important part of the global circular economy. LUT has established research platform SCI-MAT to study sustainable circularity of inorganic materials. A key element in this work is the study of circular economy models of metals and industrial minerals, explains SCI-MAT Director Sami Virolainen.

 

“As raw materials, we want to utilize municipal and electronic waste and side flows from mining and other industry. We seek to create reusable materials with mechanical and hydrometallurgical processes,” Virolainen lays out the game plan for SCI-MAT which was launched in January 2021.

 

The SCI-MAT platform meets the inorganic raw material needs of industry, while taking social, environmental, and economic sustainability into consideration.

 

“Metals and industrial minerals have increasing significance in society, as they are crucial in modern technologies. The SCI-MAT platform respects these natural resources and wants to help out in solving complex societal challenges in the inorganic materials sector – with special focus on all things circular,” explains Virolainen.

 

Building Infra

 

In addition to the recycling of metals, the platform’s research relates to utilizing bulky industrial side and waste streams as composite raw materials for e.g. noise wall barriers and building materials. The platform also identifies the value of excavation materials from, for instance, road construction and landfill sites – and finds proper uses for them.

 

“The SCI-MAT platform wants to launch projects that demonstrate the recycling of inorganic materials on a scale larger than just the laboratory. The coming projects will include, among other things, research on business models and sustainability,” Virolainen says.

 

Metal Matters

 

Sami Virolainen himself is a Docent and Post-doctoral Researcher with a firm focus on Separation Science. His doctoral thesis on the circular economy of metals was published in 2013 when the topic of circular economy was definitely not on everybody’s radar.

 

“When I started research into this theme 15 years ago, it was not yet a very hot topic. Over the years, it has become clear that we need to do a better job with circularity in all aspects which involve resources, and metals have an important role play here.”

 

Virolainen takes the battery industry as an example: new electric cars need high-quality lithium-ion batteries which require, for instance, cobalt and nickel.

“Around 60% of the world’s cobalt, for instance, come from Kongo which is not without problems. And, if you look at the Rare Earth Elements (REE), 95% of those are produced by China – and there are challenges there, too.”

 

Circular Revolution Gaining Momentum

 

What Virolainen and his team study is how to extract the valuable materials from machines and devices big and small – from vehicles to cell phones.

 

“Looking at the lithium-ion batteries on mobile phones, over 50% of materials in those are recycled in Europe – and in Finland, that figure might be soon over 80%.”

 

With Virolainen heading the SCI-MAT platform, there are also three post-doc researchers working in the team – with room for at least two more. All septech research teams at LUT contribute to the platform, in one way or another.

 

“These research teams have their own industry partners that they’re working with in the context of the platform,” Virolainen says, adding that expansion to EU-level projects is very likely in the cards soon.

If you want to know more contact Sami Virolainen (sami.virolainen@lut.fi