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’s representation of the Circular Economy with respect to metals and minerals, taking into account the 2nd law of thermodynamics (McGuiness & Jones, April 2020)

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”.

2003

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)

2003

2005

2005

2006

IOF Mandate Holder Karel Van Acker (MRC)

2006

2008

IOF Mandate Holder Peter Tom Jones Industrial Ecology (MTM, CIT, BOKU, GEO, HUB)

2008

2008

Startup Flemish Enhanced Landfill Mining Consortium (KU Leuven (coord.), Group Machiels, OVAM, VITO etc.

2008

2009

IOF Knowledge Platform SMaRT-Pro²  (CIT (coord.), GEO, BOKU, HUB, KHBO, MTM/Centre, COK, LAW)

2009

2009

Start-up InsPyro spin-off company

2009

2010

Start-up Centre for Resource Recovery and Recycling (KU Leuven + WPI and CSM from US)

2010

2011

IOF Leverage Project to prepare launching of SIM² KU Leuven

2011

2011

Entry of Prof. Koen Binnemans (Chemistry Dept.) in the cluster

2011

2011

SIM² KU Leuven formally established

2011

2012

IOF Knowledge Platform on Rare Earth Recycling and Start-up SUMMA (policy research centre)

2012

2013

European Breakthrough: FP7 EURARE and EREAN

2013

2013

KU Leuven in centre Belgian Urban/Landfill Mining Consortium for EIT KIC Raw MatTERS proposal

2013

2013

Kick-off EURELCO Consortium led by KU Leuven

2013

2014

SIM MaRes Programme and EIT RawMaterials formally approved

2014

2016

Koen Binnemans obtains ERC Advanced Grant SOLCRIMET

2016

2016

Spin-out RESOURCEFULL

2016

2016

EIT Label Master in Sustainable Materials (Leuven, INP Grenoble, U Milano-Bicocca, U Trento, MU Leoben)

2016

2017

C3 SOLMET approved leading to SOLVOMET Industrial Service Centre (Department of Chemistry)

2017

2017

Policy research centre for Circular Economy

2017

2018

SIM² KU Leuven requests to become a formal KU Leuven Institute

2018

2019

The KU Leuven Academic Council formally recognises SIM² as one of 4 flagship KU Leuven Institutes

2019

2020

KU Leuven Institute for Sustainable Metals and Minerals kicks off (membership of more than 170 PI’s, postdocs & PhD students is formally established)

2020
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