About COVID-19 and a diverse, sustainable and secure supply of raw materials
In 2020 the global Corona/COVID-19 crisis spread around the planet, sending billions of people in lockdown. Beyond the devastating health impact, COVID-19 is having very substantial impacts on raw material supply chains globally, as mining and processing operations were/are suspended. What does this mean for Europe? The Corona crisis has demonstrated once more that raw materials cannot be taken for granted.
Taking into account that the materials, which are required for electric vehicles, batteries, renewable energy and several other key enabling technologies for the transition to a climate-neutral economy, are dominated by just a limited amount of non-EU countries, it is clear that Europe finds itself in a highly vulnerable situation. We need more resilience to avoid to replace Europe’s reliance on fossil fuels with a reliance on non-energy (critical) raw materials. Hence, securing a diverse and sustainable supply of (critical) raw materials to the EU is a vital, strategic, long-term issue for Europe, as recently acknowledged by the EC in the European Green Deal (COM(2019)640) and A New Industrial Strategy for Europe (COM(2020)102).
SIM² KU Leuven’s contribution
This Grand Societal Challenge is directly addressed by SIM² KU Leuven whose mission is “to develop, organise and implement problem-driven, science-deep research and future-oriented education, contributing to the environmentally friendly production and recycling of metals, minerals and engineered materials, supporting the transition to a climate-friendly, circular-economy.”
SIM² KU Leuven, therefore, designs, researches and exploits selective and efficient processes for the exploration, extraction, recovery, recycling and refining of (base and critical) metals and minerals, as well as for the upcycling of primary and secondary resources and the re- and demanufacturing of End-of-Life complex metal-containing products. SIM² KU Leuven assesses and advances the environmental gains and the economic feasibility of the developed flow sheets. In order to support the Social License to Operate for the associated industrial activities, SIM² KU Leuven pro-actively engages with external stakeholders, including civil society groups and local communities. SIM² KU Leuven also assesses the potential health and environmental impacts of (primary) mining activities to support the transition to responsible mining.
Sustainable metallurgy for a sustainable society
In order to provide the metals and minerals that are needed for the transition to a climate-neutral economy, SIM² KU Leuven has developed its own, thermodynamically-based view on the “circular economy”. SIM² KU Leuven tries to smartly close as many metals & minerals loops as possible, while also realising there is a need for (responsible) primary mining of a multitude of speciality metals (e.g. rare earths, cobalt, lithium) that are in high demand for e-mobility, renewable energy storage etc. These metals are not yet present in sufficient amounts in the technosphere, implying that even 100% recycling will not be enough in view of satisfying the rapidly growing demand for these metals to be used in diverse clean technologies. Likewise, SIM² KU Leuven acknowledges that there are inevitable losses during metals and minerals processing and that, in some cases, certain (hazardous) residues need final (safe) storage solutions rather than being recycled.
Finally, SIM² KU Leuven is not blind for our historic legacy: a comprehensive Circular Economy view should not just deal with the waste flows of the present but should also find an answer for the waste stocks of the past. Hence, SIM² KU Leuven has been an ambassador for the Enhanced Landfill Mining agenda, which targets both stocks of extractive waste/industrial residues (including Waste-to-Energy residues) and Urban Solid Waste/Municipal Solid Waste. Only then can we genuinely claim to overcome the Dark Side of the Circular Economy.
SIM² KU Leuven timeline
SIM² KU Leuven has existed as an interdisciplinary research line within KU Leuven MRC since 2011. The establishment of SIM² KU Leuven was based on previous successes, which date back as far as 2003 when the HiTemp Centre was initiated at the Department of Materials Engineering. This Centre, which still exists today, was set up as an Academic Competence and Service Centre, structurally funded by several world-leading, Flemish-based metallurgical companies, including Umicore and Aperam. Subsequently, the Centre led to interdisciplinary collaborations with other research groups at KU Leuven, both within the Department of Materials and beyond, in the field of geology, building materials, chemical metallurgy, demanufacturing and recycling, environmental and techno-economic assessment, policy research, process psychology etc. Here below the reader can view the timeline of the various collaborations, platforms programmes and projects developed through SIM² KU Leuven are summarised, showing that the SIM² KU Leuven cluster grew “organically”.
Initiation Centre for Refractory Materials, catalyst for > 15 IWT O&O Projects (Umicore, “ALZ”, “Sidmar”) (HiTemp Group, MTM) (now Centre for HiTemp Processes and Sustainable Materials Management, funded by Umicore, Aperam, Group Machiels and Recmix)
IOF Mandate Holder Karel Van Acker (MRC)
IOF Mandate Holder Peter Tom Jones Industrial Ecology (MTM, CIT, BOKU, GEO, HUB)
Startup Flemish Enhanced Landfill Mining Consortium (KU Leuven (coord.), Group Machiels, OVAM, VITO etc.
IOF Knowledge Platform SMaRT-Pro² (CIT (coord.), GEO, BOKU, HUB, KHBO, MTM/Centre, COK, LAW)
Start-up InsPyro spin-off company
Start-up Centre for Resource Recovery and Recycling (KU Leuven + WPI and CSM from US)
IOF Leverage Project to prepare launching of SIM² KU Leuven
Entry of Prof. Koen Binnemans (Chemistry Dept.) in the cluster
IOF Knowledge Platform on Rare Earth Recycling and Start-up SUMMA (policy research centre)
European Breakthrough: FP7 EURARE and EREAN
KU Leuven in centre Belgian Urban/Landfill Mining Consortium for EIT KIC Raw MatTERS proposal
EIT Label Master in Sustainable Materials (Leuven, INP Grenoble, U Milano-Bicocca, U Trento, MU Leoben)
Policy research centre for Circular Economy
The KU Leuven Academic Council formally recognises SIM² as one of 4 flagship KU Leuven Institutes
KU Leuven Institute for Sustainable Metals and Minerals kicks off (membership of more than 170 PI’s, postdocs & PhD students is formally established)