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The term ‘sustainable development’ has its roots in a report issued by the United Nation's World Commission on Environment and Development of 1987, which was chaired by Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, the then Norwegian Prime Minister. In the paper entitled ‘Our Common Future’, usually known as the Brundtland Report,1  an oft-quoted definition of sustainable development appears in this statement: ‘Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. The next two sentences in the report refer directly to resources and to limits that are dependent on the current state of the art with respect to technology: ‘The concept of sustainable development does imply limits – not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organisation on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities. But technology and social organisation can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth.’ Thus the concept of ‘needs’ (implicitly of the world's poor) and technological development to improve the ‘carrying power’ of our planet are explicitly dealt with. The final theme of the report is that of economic development, thus the three Ps of sustainability, ‘people, planet and profit’, are incorporated. This concept has been reasonably widely accepted by industry as ‘triple bottom line’ reporting.

In Materials for a Sustainable Future, issues of resource depletion and looming shortages in addition to the consequences of resource use are considered. The book is concerned not only with the elements that could be in short supply in the near future, such as phosphorus, helium, and some rare earths, but also with pollutants, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which are being pumped into the atmosphere in sufficiently large quantities to be a threat to our lives on this planet. One approach to such pollutants is to treat them as resources. Furthermore, the book contains chapters concerning chemicals and materials that might soon be required in large quantities to help create a more sustainable way of life, in the light of depletion of fossil resources such as oil. These include: biomass needed to manufacture plastics; special compounds and membranes for water purification, water splitting, photovoltaic cells, batteries and fuel cells; and special materials for buildings, glass technologies and storing hydrogen.

The book is divided into five themes:

  • Elements that could soon be in short supply.

  • Sustainability related to biomass.

  • Sustainability related to the feedstocks: carbon dioxide and methane.

  • Materials related to energy conversion, storage and distribution.

  • Sustainability related to materials in the urban environment and to water.

Coverage of each of these topics is, of necessity, not exhaustive and there are many areas that are not mentioned. Furthermore, there are other elements besides those mentioned in this book, such as zinc, gallium, germanium, arsenic, indium, hafnium and even silver, the shortage of which many believe will pose a serious threat in the next 100 years (Figure 1).2  In many ways, this book is a snap-shot in time of the present state of strategic elements and compounds on the planet, and of new ideas and processes that could soon bring us closer to a sustainable existence. Some of the topics discussed are moving forward at a rapid rate and new developments appear almost daily, others may only begin to be properly addressed when prices of desirable or essential goods rise due to impending shortage of supply, or stockpiling by a geopolitical power block.

Figure 1

Periodic table showing ‘endangered elements’, from reference 2 (adapted from Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network:

Figure 1

Periodic table showing ‘endangered elements’, from reference 2 (adapted from Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network:

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The developing scarcity of certain elements is becoming widely recognised as having the potential to constrain future technological developments, including those often associated with more sustainable technologies. For example, lithium, widely used in energy storage applications, is predominantly obtained from reserves located in parts of South America; platinum group metals, used in automobile catalytic converters, are concentrated in South Africa and Russia; and the rare earths neodymium and dysprosium are used in the production of light, yet powerful, magnets deployed in the electric motors of hybrid or electric cars and wind turbines, yet these elements are currently mined almost exclusively in China and are increasingly sequestered to service their local market. Clearly, in some cases, actual global scarcity is less of an issue than adequately distributed supply. Rare earths are not particularly rare in the earth's crust and it is possible to reopen or develop new mines to service the need for these materials, while other metals may be in danger of ‘running out’ in the foreseeable future as global demand rises. 3  In some cases, such as indium, perceived scarcity is challenged, but resources are clearly not infinite.4  Indium is recovered from the mining of zinc. Cobalt is another metal that could soon be scarce. Growing impacts from mining will most likely cause supply constraints long before some elements run out. This is already happening with the rare earths, with China cutting back for social and environmental reasons.

The strategic issues associated with material supply and control of scarce or unevenly distributed resources have been recognised by nation-states and politico-economic groupings. Japan has developed the ‘Element Strategy Initiative’ leading to the establishment of the ‘Element Strategy Commission’.5  This initiative is a four pillar approach: substitution, reduction, recycling and regulation. The first of these focuses on replacement of rare and harmful elements with abundant, harmless ones and is seen as a stimulant to new materials research. The second and third lead to the extension of the lifetime of elements in use and creation of closed materials loops, otherwise known as a ‘cradle to cradle’ approach as espoused by Braungart and McDonough.6  The fourth pillar, regulation, often viewed with trepidation by developers and commercialisers of new technologies, is here seen as promoting innovation by ensuring that the other pillars are enacted.5 

As a resource poor country, Japan focused on these strategically important issues somewhat earlier than many other countries or groupings, but these have followed suit with the publication of ‘Critical Raw Materials for the EU’7  and the US Department of Energy ‘Critical Materials Strategy both in 2010 (the latter updated in 2011).3 

In the cradle to cradle approach, referred to above, the concept of ‘technical nutrients’5  which can be used in continuous cycles without ‘downcycling’ (loss of integrity or quality) is useful when contemplating elements that are not in particularly short supply, but that humankind is distributing in highly dilute forms about the earth. Phosphorus, ubiquitous in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, is not ‘rare’, in the sense of ‘only present on earth in small amounts’, but it is rapidly being dispersed in low concentration throughout the ecosphere. Thus high concentrated ores are mined and used directly as fertilisers, or converted into organo-phosphorus compounds in detergents or pesticides,8  which are then widely distributed with little opportunity for recovery.

Apart from the metals and other elements mentioned above the ‘elements of life’ are also under threat, albeit of a different kind. The elements of organic compounds, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (and to a lesser extent nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur), form the basis for a huge range of chemicals and materials that we use in growing quantities in the form of polymers, surfactants and fine and commodity chemicals. In addition many organic chemicals serve small, but important roles as preservatives, drugs, flavourants and fragrances. While much of our food is derived from renewable (although not always sustainable) sources a very large percentage of the carbon that is used in organic chemicals and polymers is derived from fossil reserves, mainly oil. While there is little consensus about the date of ‘peak oil’9  all agree that the resource is finite.

Anthropogenically produced carbon dioxide, is widely recognised as a pollutant that is expected to effect large changes in the global climate,10  yet this may provide a useful carbon building block, as might methane, a significant greenhouse gas.11  Thus, as well as considering bio-based raw materials as sources of chemicals and materials, we include chapters on the conversion of these two pollutants as sources of chemicals. In such applications, these become a resource rather than (only) a concern.

By far the most rapid means of conversion of useful fossil carbon from hydrocarbons to CO2 results from combustion in pursuit of energy conversion. Thus, a consideration of materials which allow alternative means of energy harvesting, conversion, storage and transport is essential in a book devoted to Materials for a Sustainable Future. While this is a huge topic in itself some of the most rapidly developing topics are covered, though we do not attempt to consider opportunities offered by materials for nuclear fusion or fission.

More than>50% of the world's population live in cities and this figure is increasing, with expectations that the urban population will double from 2.6 billion in 2010 to 5.2 billion by 2050.12  In such a scenario the built environment provides opportunities for energy harvesting via smart materials as well as requiring maximum energy saving, also by application of sophisticated new materials.

Finally, the topic of water and specifically water purification is addressed briefly. Although approximately 70% of the surface of the earth is covered by water, much of this is in a form that is not immediately useful to most terrestrial plants or to humans.13,14  There are schools of thought that hold that potable water will become the limiting factor in the earth's carrying capacity for human population and that competition for this precious resource may be a future source of global conflict. Once again, the development of smart materials will be critical in accessing fresh water from the seas.

Success in any technical enterprise depends on awareness, decision making and action. We do hope that this book helps in all three areas and that sustainable living can be achieved within the next generation. This is particularly important and necessary as the world's population, currently standing at 6.97 billion,15  is expected to reach between 7.5 and 10.5 billion by the year 2050.16 

Trevor M. Letcher

Janet L. Scott

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