A growing global population needs more homes, transport and the other building blocks of society – but the current model for manufacturing means we’re heading for a resource-constrained world. If we are to avoid a shortage, we need to fundamentally rethink the way we produce and consume materials, says Innovate UK’s Dr Bruce Adderley.

Two hundred years ago, the planet was home to 1 billion people. Today it’s 7.5 billion and by 2050 it’s estimated the global population could reach 11 billion. There is much talk about a looming crisis in food and energy supplies, but equally important – and often overlooked – is the impending shortage of materials.

The production and manufacture of metal, glass, cement, ceramics and chemicals – the so-called Foundation Industries – are needed to build homes, workplaces, transport networks and communications systems. They are the building blocks of a civilised society, but they are also energy- and resource-hungry.

The Foundation Industries are responsible for large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions (they create 60% of global product emissions) and they currently use vast quantities of dwindling virgin resources. We can’t live without them, so it’s vital we change the way we produce and consume these materials.

Historically, the Foundation Industries have operated in a high-volume, centralised production system. Cheap and plentiful supplies of energy and raw materials meant businesses could ship iron ore halfway around the world, run blast furnaces day-in, day-out, and landfill mountains of waste. Not so today, and certainly not in the decades to come.

In recent years, these industries have made significant inroads to improving the sustainability of their operations, but what’s needed now is a fundamental shift to a low volume, localised system that produces less and makes use of resources already available in a region. It’s a big ask, and something that can only be achieved by drawing on and developing the very latest innovations in materials and technology.

The principal aim of the multi-million pound Transforming Foundation Industries (TFI) Challenge, part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, is to drive exactly this sort of innovation.

Developing the technology and materials of the future

Recycling is key to success in a decentralised system. In the UK, a great deal of metal is shipped overseas for recycling into products that we often then buy back. It makes better sense for recycling to happen on a national or even regional scale. TFI projects include utilising recycled steel in construction and even drawing on the by-products of other Foundation Industries, such as materials technology business Cambond’s project to create chipboard for construction with waste from the paper and steel industries and a plant-based resin by-product from the brewing sector.

Developments in nanotechnology mean we can move away from high-volume production models and instead do more with less. Take graphene, a nanomaterial that forms the key ingredient in a new lower-carbon formulation for concrete called Concretene. If the concrete industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of CO2 in the world, but research by the University of Manchester shows the addition of a small amount of graphene can reduce the volume of concrete required in a structure by as much as 30%.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, represents an opportunity to dramatically reduce waste. Recently, in Germany, a whole house was 3D printed, and later this year there are plans for a whole neighbourhood in Texas to be 3D printed. While this scale of manufacture hasn’t yet been reached for other Foundation Industry materials, many smaller but larger quantity products can now be manufactured this way, and future innovations will surely see further scale-ups in the years to come.

Advances in green chemistry can help wean us from a dependency on fossil fuels by creating chemical processes without the need for heating or high pressure, or even produce alternative materials. FabricNano aims to transform the UK’s chemical synthesis industry with biomanufacturing technology that converts low-value waste glycerin (a waste produce from biodiesel manufacturing) into 1,3-Propanediol, an ingredient that can be used to replace polyethylene glycol in toothpaste or shampoo.

Adding new functions to materials

We are not just talking about incrementally improved materials, but also the potential for integrated additional functionality or completely new materials. Take the case of photovoltaics (PV); if we could cost-effectively integrate them into the fabric of buildings, we would enable houses and workplaces to generate their own power.

New PV manufacturing technologies are not only lowering the cost of PV-based energy to below that of fossil fuels but are also bringing the price of PV materials to lower than some building materials. It means we could soon see houses glazed with windows that capture solar energy. The opportunity to effectively deploy materials that provide cheaper energy, reduce construction costs, and have a significantly lower environmental impact is within our grasp.

As the global population increases, so will competition for resources and sadly, almost inevitably, conflict. By pursuing a technological path towards a decentralised, sustainable model for the manufacture of materials not only do we reduce the environmental impact of constructing the buildings and infrastructure required for future society, but we minimise the need for virgin resources and, one hopes, conflict over them, too.