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        UK materials researchers turn to social science in pursuit of sustainable technologies
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        UK materials researchers turn to social science in pursuit of sustainable technologies
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When Alan Dalton developed environmentally friendly radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, he faced the challenge of commercializing the technology. To see how they might do this, his group, at the University of Sussex, in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences where he is a professor, teamed up with social scientists at the university’s Digital Futures at Work Research Centre (Digit Centre), part of a new £8 million investment by the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK. Working with Walmart and Advanced Material Development, a company created to capitalize on the group’s materials research, Dalton and the social scientists are studying how RFID tags are developed and implemented and how they affect employment in the retail sector.

The conductive inks came about as part of a research project on fundamental materials physics funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. The Sussex researchers studied how to use graphene and other nanomaterial inks in applications for devices that needed electrical and/or thermal conductivity. The work at Sussex resulted in a “platform technology” that makes it possible to tune the rheology and formulation of the inks so that ink-jet, screen, and flexographic printing, for example, could deposit them as antennas on a range of substrates.

Nanotech graphene inks could print eco-friendly RF tags that cut waste. Credit: University of Sussex.

The challenge is to understand how to persuade a long-established sector—the global RFID market, estimated to be worth USD$11 billion in 2018—to adopt a new technology. “In trying to decipher whether there was a market for a green solution to removing metals from RFID antenna, I approached professor Jacqueline O’Reilly [co-director of the Digit Centre],” Dalton tells MRS Bulletin. With added backing from the company, the project will, Dalton says, support an Innovation Fellow who will carry out research “to understand the marketplace and how this carbon-based technology might act as a disruptor on the market.”

The Sussex project is part of a growing trend as researchers try to meet the growing pressure to develop sustainable materials. Social scientists are also informing the work of the Henry Royce Institute—a funded entity of the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council in the UK—which recently started the move into its new building in Manchester (MRS Bulletin, Volume 42, June 2017). “I think the interplay between our social and material worlds is an essential component of responsible innovation,” says Michael Shaver, a professor at The University of Manchester.

Shaver’s research at the Royce Institute, where he holds the interesting title of Sustainable Materials Champion, focuses on all aspects of polymers, from research into new materials through to their role in society. Shaver, who describes himself as “a plastics guy” as well as the driver of the “social stuff” at the Royce Institute, talked about his work at the recent Materials Research Exchange Exhibition and Investor Showcase in London last February, which was organized by the UK government’s program, Innovate UK, together with the Knowledge Transfer Network. The mission of the Knowledge Transfer Network is to link “new ideas and opportunities with expertise, markets and finance” through its network with industry, universities, government, and investors. It partners with Innovate UK. In response to the UK’s interest in sustainability, government funding enables collaboration across disciplines to bring R&D in sustainable technologies to market.

As Shaver sees it, materials are just a part of the “sustainability” challenge. “The reality is that this has nothing to do with materials themselves,” he said at the event in London. “It has to do with the decisions that we as a society make around those materials that we use.”

It is unthinkable to do without plastics [today], Shaver insisted. Indeed, we need to use more of these materials if we want to improve sustainability. As he pointed out, most people see plastics in a consumer context; they forget that plastics are ubiquitous. Polymeric materials must be considered in their entirety. This is where social sciences enter the mix. “The first thing that we have to do is to think about why, from a societal perspective, these things are important,” Shaver said.

Take food packaging. With it, food is safer, lasts longer, and is protected from contamination. “We need to have people not die. At the same time as we prioritize what those plastics are doing from a societal perspective, we can look at what things we don’t necessarily need,” Shaver said. “What we need is for materials science to come in and innovate,” he added. The biggest area of innovation now is the quest for “biosourced” and biodegradable materials. But then there is a real challenge in terms of marketing. Shaver warned that when people see the “biodegradable” label on packaging, they think that it will safely decompose wherever they dispose of it. In reality, many so-called biodegradable polymers require treatment in specialized facilities. “What we need is an infrastructure that supports industrial biodegradation,” Shaver said. Is there any point in adopting these materials without that service? he asked.

“We, as materials experts, need to push back against the negative press around plastics,” Shaver advised the materials experts at the meeting. According to Shaver, the materials community needs to prioritize systems for reuse and then recycling, and degradation and pyrolysis. “The most important thing to remember is that I cannot get a sustainable material, I can only get a sustainable system,” he said. So, when pursuing sustainability, take on board the system approach before diving off into new materials, he added. Shaver also stressed the need for materials researchers to understand business models and social science practice as ways to “inform materials design.” As Shaver put it, “sustainability is an overarching thing. So an initial framing now can help shape things in the future.”