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SOLUTIONS Technologies 2030 workshop: trends and consequences of future chemical pollution

December 16, 2015

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Guest post by Dirk Bunke, Susanne Moritz, Werner Brack and David López Herráez.

Can changes in the availability and use of water resources, population demography, technology, economy and climate alter the pattern of chemical substances released into the environment? Is it possible – at least to a certain degree – to predict future emerging pollutants?

The EU SOLUTIONS project address these questions based on scenarios impacting on freshwater chemical pollution. The project’s underlying objective is to suggest assessment tools and abatement options for emerging water pollution challenges.

SOLUTIONS workshop – Technologies 2030

The project’s first task on this ‘topic of tomorrow’ was to identify and examine patterns and trends in current chemical pollution. Following this initial analysis, SOLUTIONS scientists are now working with external experts in dedicated workshops to discuss economic, technological and demographic trends in society.

Last month, the SOLUTIONS project held a workshop titled ‘Technologies 2030’, which brought together a team of researchers and stakeholders to discuss the challenges of new and emerging chemical pollutants.

Innovations in technologies play a central role in enhancing the efficiency of processes and products. New materials are constantly being developed, and form the basis of the majority of new product innovations. Printable electronics, metallic matrix composites, technical textiles and switchable shading systems are only some examples. Does this automatically mean that we can expect parallel releases of new substances into the environment?

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Mobile phone subscribers per 100 inhabitants distinguishing developed and developing countries. Figures for 2005-2014 taken from International Telecommunication Union – ITU. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The future of chemical pollution in freshwaters

The workshop’s systematic search for incipient trends, opportunities, challenges and constraints that might affect societal goals and objectives began with a “horizon scanning” presented by Michael Depledge. What is the future of chemical pollution in freshwaters? What will be the new and emerging pollutants, and where will they come from?

All predictions of future developments show a degree of uncertainty, nevertheless Depledge gave an overview about practical experience in scanning for global environmental issues. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified in a similar approach the following candidates as important new technological trends: Nano-Architecture, Car-to-Car Communication, Project Loon (connecting billions of people to the Internet), Liquid Biopsy, Megascale Desalination, Brain Organoids, Supercharged Photosynthesis and Internet of DNA.

Regarding future chemicals and potential pollutants, the key questions are: What kind of chemicals will we need in future worlds? In what amounts? In which regions of the world? From 1940 up to today, the amount of chemicals produced has increased several hundred folds. In part, consumption of chemicals can be directly predicted from product sales – for example, the trace elements needed for smartphones.

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Existing chemicals

It is estimated that two-thirds of future chemical production growth will be as a result of already-existing chemicals. Parallel to the projected growth in chemical production, new approaches to reduce emissions come up. For example: automated agricultural vehicles in Precision Agriculture minimizing wastage of fertilizers, pesticides and other agrochemicals. However, at present, precise long-term visions about how the future in Europe and the world will look like with respect to new products and chemicals are still lacking.

New material developments

Approximately 70% of all product innovations in Europe are based on new material developments. Wolfgang Luther from the VDI Technology Center, Germany, presented an overview on the early identification of chemical aspects for innovative materials and technologies. Materials innovations comprise new substances, substance and material modifications (e.g. surface functionalization), new material combinations (e.g. multi-material systems, composites) and new application context of established substances.

A key driver for material innovations are substitutions. Substitutions may take place for different reasons: rare or cost intensive raw materials, hazardous and toxic substances, change to more sustainable technologies, change to better technical performance and/or cost reduction.

The VDI Technology Center has identified more than a hundred innovative technologies and materials, selecting 20 of them for a deeper analysis. They belong to the following six groups: new production technologies (such as 3D printing), electronics (such as OLEDs and printable electronics), construction and lightweight engineering, energy and environmental engineering (as organic photovoltaics), textile technologies and functional materials and coatings (as polymeric foals). Many of the 470 substances compiled for these new technologies were polymers, a class of compounds, which is not registered under REACH.

Energy supplies

One of the major developments in the near future addresses technologies for energy supply. As discussed by Andreas Müller from chromgruen and Jonas Bartsch from the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, Germany, all technologies of energy transition, including energy production, storage and saving, come along with their specific chemical footprints, which require careful assessment.

Hydraulic fracturing (i.e. Fracking) might be the technology with the largest diversity of chemicals used involving more than a thousand individual compounds. Solar heat requires isocyanates for PU (polyurethane) foams and adhesives, organohalogen and organophosphorous flame retardants, and a range of metals and other inorganic materials.

Bisphenol A-based epoxy resins are used for rotor blades and might be emitted during manufacturing, use and dismission. Hydropower plants can be considered as stocks for legacy chemicals such as asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls, which may be released to the environment as and when these plants are refurbished.

Photovoltaics

One of the key technologies of future energy production is photovoltaic (PV). A wide variety of designs have been developed to save the energy of excited electrons using a range of (mostly silicon-based) semiconductors. Apart from silicon semiconductors, organic solar cells using compounds of complex structure, such as fullerenes and hexalthiophene, dye-sensitized solar cells and mixed types are available but are not expected to replace silicon based PV within the next decade.

During use, the current technology shows only limited risk due to a low release potential. Recycling is desirable – for economic savings and pollution prevention. During production, typically hazardous substances are used. However, this takes place under “clean room conditions” with the aim of closed material cycles.

Nanotechnologies

Nanotechnology is another key enabling technology with potentially high benefits for social and economic development, yet which at the same time poses risks to the environment and human health. Both technological development and risk assessment have been interlinked in the Dutch project Nanonext (as presented by Annemarie van Wezel).

The project developed a specific method for Risk Analysis and Technology Assessment – termed RATA – including a specific tool set to check new business ideas for risks – really at the beginning. This “Golden-egg check” may be seen as an example for other novel technologies and is publicly available. Checking for risks in advance and minimizing them from the very beginning may become a selling point for novel technologies.

Horizon scanning at Technologies 2030

The SOLUTIONS workshop on “Technologies 2030” and their impact on future pollution highlighted the strongly chemical-related nature of many novel technologies including electronics, energy, nanotechnology and many more.

New compounds for novel technologies such as dye sensitized solar cells will come up but at the same time many already existing chemicals will be used. Thus, future patterns of pollution – in 2030 and onwards – will be a complex mixture of legacy chemicals, “forgotten” old chemicals which are released decades after their use, and new emerging substances.

It will be SOLUTIONS’s task to translate this finding into strategies for future environmental modelling and monitoring as well as for sustainable use of chemicals minimizing risks to freshwater ecosystems and human health.

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Participants

Attendees from following institutions participated in SOLUTIONS “Technologies 2030”

Dirk Bunke, Susanne Moritz and Anton Biljan from Öko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology – Germany); Werner BrackRolf Altenburger and David López Herráez from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research – UFZ; Michael Depledge from University of Exeter Medical School; Frank Sleeuwaert from the Flemish Institute for Technological Research – VITO, Annemarie van Wezel from Watercycle Research Institute/University Utrecht – The Netherlands; Andreas Müller from chromgruen – Germany, Wolfgang Luther from VDI Technology Center, Germany, Jonas Bartsch from Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems – ISE, Christiane Heiss from the German Federal Environment Agency, and Valeria Dulio from L’Institut National de l’Environnement Industriel et des Risques – INERIS, France.

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