Creating a Sustainable Future – The Role of Material Selection

Article by Sumita Singh

One challenge that engineers of all stripes need to deal with is material selection.

ENGINEERING is a broad discipline, encompassing everything from major infrastructure projects to the development of nano-robots. But one challenge that engineers of all stripes need to deal with is material selection. Depending on the task at hand, the number of suitable materials can easily be in the tens, or even the hundreds.

For example, when engineering a rocket ship, NASA scientists have to filter through a database of over 32,000 metals and non-metals, including around 6,800 ferrous and nonferrous alloys and 6,000 restricted substances, to find the right material for a given job. Selecting from the vast amount of options is a daunting prospect and, as the amount of new research, processes, and materials available continues to increase, it’s becoming more difficult.

The complexity around material selection is due to the vast number of factors that need to be weighed against each other. Each project has its own considerations around cost, performance, and feasibility. For example, does choosing a more flexible material justify an increase in the cost per unit? Do existing processes allow for a new, superior material to be incorporated easily? Will a change in material have knock-on health and safety implications to be compensated for? Any materials also need to be carefully considered as to whether they are feasible, beneficial and valid under regulators like the EPA or regulations such as REACH. As regulations change, engineers need to ensure they are using the most suitable materials while avoiding critical business risk in the form of non-compliance.  

Compounding the issue, due to increased pressure from consumers and governments alike, is the fact that engineers today are expected to create sustainable, environmentally-friendly solutions. Unfortunately no silver bullet exists. Improvements in one area almost inevitably involve sacrifice in another, and everyone from engineering firms to manufacturing and chemical companies are struggling to balance not only multiple immediate demands around cost and performance, but also how to offset these against the likely future environmental impacts.

Towards a sustainable future

Being ‘green’ hasn’t always been a big concern when it came to engineering projects. Up until the last decade, it would all-too-often take a backseat to performance considerations such as durability, flexibility, and conductivity. This is, in part, is the reason for the huge proliferation of materials like concrete and plastic over the last half-century. Environmentalists have long been sounding the alarm over the manufacture of both – today concrete is responsible for 7-10% of CO2 emissions globally while 8m t of non-biodegradable plastic is produced every year – yet warnings have not been acted upon.

However, the situation is changing rapidly. A survey found that nearly half of CEOs (46%) expect climate change – and in particular resource scarcity – to have a transformative effect on their business. This is especially true in the manufacturing and engineering industries, as both are highly sensitive to price spikes for materials. Meanwhile, society is starting to apply increased pressure to promote greener practices. Consumer surveys have found a third of consumers look for sustainable brands while nearly three quarters display a preference for products made using renewable energy sources. Meanwhile, initiatives such as the Green Pledge Bond are booming as companies, aware of the prospect of further regulation in the offing, demonstrate their ability to self-regulate. Collectively, these factors are pushing environmentalism up the corporate agenda across the board and for manufacturers, chemical companies and engineering firms, in particular.

Such demands have filtered down to individual engineers and researchers themselves – resulting in further pressure to find improved solutions which simultaneously perform better, cost less and are more environmentally friendly. Yet sustainability is a complicated concept, encompassing everything from the potential impacts of corrosion and environmental degradation to resource scarcity and the creation of waste by-products. Better environmental protection in one regard may result in a worse outcome elsewhere.  

For example, a deep sea oil rig requires a significant amount of care to ensure that corrosion doesn’t occur. There are a wide range of anti-corrosion coatings available on the market; some provide longer-term protection but have a greater detrimental effect on local marine life, whereas a less toxic option may need to be reapplied several times during the life of the rig. An engineer working on the project needs to decide whether the impact on local marine life is worth the reduced risk of an oil spill. The decision would also need to take into account the potential cost and health and safety implications of each choice. Engineers face various difficult decisions every day – balancing a current cost/benefit analysis, with expected future impacts.

Engineers face difficult decisions every day

The R&D road to greener solutions

Given that materials such as concrete and plastic have significant negative environmental impacts, they are simply not adequate to meet these challenges. Thankfully, due to the hard work of R&D researchers and emerging trends like additive manufacturing and 3D printing, we are currently in a golden age of material innovation. New options are constantly becoming available, many of which are far more environmentally friendly than older alternatives. Breakthroughs such as wool bricks, sustainable concrete or self-healing materials have given engineers the chance to radically improve the sustainability of their projects while not suffering any drop in performance.

However, while such innovations enable engineers to make their projects more sustainable, working with new materials can be very tricky. Knowing the properties, impacts and trade-offs involved in using a breakthrough material such as graphene is critical to ensuring that there are no nasty surprises in store down the line. For example, the cost and environmental impact of deploying graphene can vary wildly depending on the purpose and scale required, from small flakes to industrial-scale sheets. Both out in the field and inside the lab, engineers and researchers are constantly having to incorporate new information about these materials to understand how they will work in various conditions.

With so much research being conducted every day – the amount of data being published is currently doubling every nine years – it’s impossible for engineers to keep up. The digitisation of information has helped by increasing the accessibility of data and making it more searchable, but given the complexity and specificity of the data needed by engineers, ‘normal’ search engines are simply inadequate. And proprietary internal data can add yet another layer of complexity as it is often siloed across different departments, pulled from different sources, and stored across a mix of formats including structured and unstructured. 

The right tool for the job

The solution to this problem is specialised digital tools – such as dedicated scientific portals or chemically-literate databases – that are designed to help engineers operate as effectively as possible. Companies and research institutions need to provide engineers with the best digital solutions available so that they can make sense of the complex reams of data, whether it be proprietary or external. Without these sorts of tools, engineers will inevitably be slowed down and more likely to miss a vital piece of information that could significantly impact their project. This is particularly true of younger engineers who are entering the workforce expecting to be able to work whenever and however they like, on whatever device they like. One way to on-board the newest generation of engineers to productive careers on engineering teams is to meet a high standard of materials information integrated in their workflow to enable faster evaluation and decision making.

Material selection is a daunting challenge in the best of times, yet it is a fundamental issue that must be addressed. The deluge of news about resource shortages, plastics choking our oceans and toxic chemical by-products demonstrate the urgency of the matter. To maintain and advance human development, while simultaneously respecting the planet, we need to understand and incorporate a wide range of new materials into our daily lives. And each one will come with important trade-offs that must be assessed and decided upon, which means companies need to ensure that their engineers and researchers have the confidence to explore new technical topics, develop products and processes, and formulate engineering solutions knowing they haven’t overlooked vital data.

Article by Sumita Singh

Managing director, reference solutions, Elsevier R&D Solutions

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.