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Upcycled Industrial Residues

Producing metals generates vast waste streams that can inflict high environmental impact and cause massive overheads for handling and monitoring them. Which innovation directions could help turning these high volumes of industrial residues from metal-making into an asset? 

Photo: Iron-rich slag from copper recycling © StudioThusThat.

7.5 million tons of industrial waste per year could be valorized in Europe

Materials Innovation worked with Prof. Pontikes’ team (Sustainable Resources for Engineered Materials at KU Leuven) to perform a technology scan and distill a list of top directions to valorize residue streams from the making copper and aluminum, which are vital for a cleaner mobility.

This project took place within the framework of an EIT Raw Materials Upscaling grant and looked for sources of inspiration for potential products that can be made out iron-rich residues (bauxite and fayalite), which in Europe only account for 7.5 million tons per year or the weight of more than 1 pyramid of Giza per year.

In its origins this project takes an Industrial Ecology and Cradle to Cradle approach to reduce and even eliminate the concept of waste in the non-ferrous metallurgical foundries by turning its residues into an input for geopolymer materials, an improved version of cement.

“Materials Innovation amazed me with their structured 360 degrees approach to highlight what were the main applications, technological trends and players in each of the markets related to our technology

Profesor Yiannis Pontikes, SREMat - KU Leuven

Technology Landscaping,  Novel Applications

Materials Innovation’s technology landscaping – based on an extensive patents and scientific papers review – revealed the most relevant properties of the upcycled iron-rich geopolymers.

Most relevant properties are a high thermal, structural and chemical resistance, high hardness. In addition, these materials can be turned into porous materials (with closed cells). It is also possible to pump and extrude them. Finally, these materials have an attractive aesthetics as they exist in dark grey and deep red colors.

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Photos: Products made out of bauxite (deep red) and fayalite (dark grey) © StudioThusThat.

Having these properties in mind and performing internal brainstorming we came up with a range of functions these materials could perform. These in turn could enable Professor Pontikes’ team to seriously consider a number of novel applications for their core technology. In addition to decorative elements such as tiles & furniture surfaces, upcycled geopolymers could be turned into higher value products such as brake pads, abrasives and ink formulations for 3D printed building elements.

For each one of the novel applications, Materials Innovation mapped out a competitors landscape, most valuable patents and inventors and identified who are the leading players that could eventually become partners.

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Photos: Products made out of bauxite (deep red) and fayalite (dark grey) © SREMat – KU Leuven

Challenge ahead

Building a Circular Ecosystem: as discovered after discussing with multiple stakeholders (waste producers, raw materials traders, construction materials producers and recyclers) the trickiest aspect to bringing Upcycled Geopolymers to market is hardly technology. The main barrier to market seems to be linked to creating an ecosystem capable of connecting the different players across the value chain from the producers of waste streams until the end product designer through the collector and transformer of the residues. An ecosystem where each one of its members can find its own benefit and reduce its risks linked to investments, opportunity costs and market development costs.

Do you have a project in mind? Are you interested in a collaboration? Don’t hesitate to reach out.