Blog|February 9, 2023
The efficient collection, exchange and utilization of data is considered one of the critical aspects in the transition to a circular economy. This is especially true for the field of rechargeable batteries as the global electrification targets call for more effective circular economy strategies. Prof. Rodrigo Serna from Aalto University is working towards this goal and has recently looked at how data could be more efficiently utilized in the battery materials ecosystem. We spoke with Prof. Serna about his work and about his commitment to promoting circularity.
Hello Rodrigo, could you tell us a bit about your background and scientific career so far?
I obtained my doctoral degree from the University of Ottawa in Canada where my thesis topic was the use of nanoporous materials to prevent greenhouse gas emissions. For the past 8 years I have worked as a Professor at Aalto University where I lead the team of Mineral Processing and Recycling. Prior to this, I was an R&D team leader at BASF in Germany, where I focused on the development of new methods for the concentration of minerals. I have always been interested in the design of new technologies to help us to responsible use natural resources and decrease the environmental impact of industrial processes.
Can you tell us more about your research in the area of battery materials and their applications?
My research focuses on the physical separation processes for the production of raw materials. Since the demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected increase significantly in the next decades, it is necessary to find more efficient means to supply the necessary raw materials. My research tries to find solutions to this challenging task from two main perspectives: new concepts for unit operations that enable the recovery of a wide range of battery materials and the development of new engineering concepts to evaluate the efficiency of circular solutions.
How did you become interested in topics related to circular economy?
As I started working in the mineral processing field, it became apparent that we need to find clever ways to use our limited natural resources. There are various approaches aimed at decreasing the environmental impact of raw materials production, but it is the circular economy model that aims at preventing the exploitation of natural resources by extending the lifetime of our valuable materials.
What do you see as the biggest circular economy challenges for batteries and battery materials?
The ongoing electrification efforts represent an unprecedented demand for critical materials and infrastructure. While there is awareness of the role of recycling for supplying these materials, batteries remain a product that is designed for performance. In fact, the intrinsic characteristics of batteries, such as size of active particles, the use of adhesives and the use of thin metallic foils, make them particularly hard to recycle. Thus, we need to find a way to overcome the existing contradiction of high-performance energy storage versus highly efficient recovery of materials.
How do you see the role of data in the transition to a circular economy?
The concept of circular economy involves systemic thinking by definition. The exchange of data is fundamentally important since it represents the “common language” by which different actors in the value chain communicate their needs and assess the impact of their operations at various stages of the life cycle. Indeed, without an efficient exchange of information, systems are bound to fail.
What are the data sharing challenges of today, both technology and policy-wise?
In a recent study, we sought out to identify the existing perceptions of circular economy and the current challenges. Through interviews with representatives of industry and academia, we found that there is a lack of clarity on what data is relevant to evaluate circularity at the level of industrial ecosystems. Consequently, the exchange of information is inefficient at best and nonexistent at worst. Without adequate circularity indicators, the various actors in the value chain will continue measuring the performance of their operations in isolation, not really complying with the demands of a circular economy. Policy makers may set regulations forcing companies to exchange information but again, without a clarity of purpose, this will likely result in an inefficient exchange of data.
What are the most interesting research questions left to solve for the battery materials field?
For me, it boils down to three questions:
1) What are the process technologies that offer an optimal transformation of battery materials with the least possible consumption of resources and environmental impact?
2) What objective parameters can be significant to evaluate circularity strategies at the system-level, so that production and recycling processes (including new battery designs) are carried out following the principles of circular economy, and finally
3) How can we establish an efficient platform for data exchange through which the impact of circular solutions becomes evident?
By finding answers to these three questions, we may establish new technological paradigms that could better serve the future needs of the industry and society.
You have previously also worked in the chemical industry. How do you see the role of universities and research organizations vs. companies in working towards circular economy and what can we learn from each other?
Universities and private companies may have different targets but are intrinsically tied together since progress (both technological and societal) depends on the research of new ideas and their implementation. Universities have the freedom to explore the new concepts that will enable a transition towards a circular economy in a feasible manner, while industry has first-hand knowledge on the needs to bring such concepts into practice. As we can see, the importance of data flows is reflected here too since, in the end, the circular economy will only be successful through the establishment of efficient channels of communication and data exchange between actors with complementary expertise.
You can learn more about overcoming data gaps in circular economy from Prof. Serna’s recent paper published in the Journal of Cleaner Production in November 2022.