Australia and the U.S. join forces on sustainable materials

March 2nd, 2023

A unique partnership between CSIRO and the U.S. National Science Foundation aims for a complete rethinking of materials design, production, and use.

By Michael Matz

For Ben Hsiao, weeds, tree trimmings, and other plant wastes contain a treasure trove of valuable chemicals and components waiting to be discovered. The materials scientist at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York spends his days investigating how to use these materials—which are available in vast amounts—to solve the world’s biggest problems.

He may be on the verge of doing just that. Recently, his research group developed a simple, rapid, waste-free chemical process that can extract from these wastes a fibrous material known as nanocellulose while also yielding a liquid laden with nutrients.

“The process is similar to cooking vegetables in water to make vegetable soup,” said Hsiao. “The heat from your stove breaks down the vegetables into vegetable pulp and flavored, nutrient-rich broth.”

Halfway around the world, another research team led by University of Queensland materials scientist Darren Martin has made a complementary discovery. The team developed a manufacturing process that uses nanocellulose to mass-produce a biodegradable, nontoxic, strong gel. It’s known as a “hydrogel” because it holds a large amount of water.

The hydrogel offers a promising solution for urgent environmental restoration and land remediation needs in Australia and other countries. For example, applying the material to drought-stricken farmlands can prevent desertification, and adding them to sandy coastlines can encourage plant growth and reduce erosion. Meanwhile, the nutrient-rich liquid produced in the process offers potential as a safe, low-cost agricultural fertilizer—an attractive alternative to conventional fertilizers known to adversely impact air and water quality.

While production of nanocellulose-based materials has historically been burdened by high costs, coupling the two teams’ processes may make the materials affordable for the first time ever. Yet, the researchers still lack a full understanding of how to successfully translate these and other promising applications into real-world practice.

Now, they have an exciting opportunity to advance their work, with enormous potential benefits for the environment and economy in Australia and globally. In December, they were awarded funding through a unique partnership between CSIRO and the U.S. National Science Foundation on a joint solicitation to support sustainable materials research. The agencies also awarded funding to a team of U.S. and Australian researchers and organizations investigating how to use plastic waste to manufacture furniture and other home goods. NSF is funding the U.S. teams while CSIRO is supporting the Australian teams.

Solving the Materials Dilemma

The production, use, and management of materials cause some of humanity’s biggest environmental problems. In recent decades, they have resulted in rapidly increasing waste, and the capacity of global ecosystems to absorb this waste is shrinking. There is broad consensus that more than half of greenhouse gas emissions from industry is from materials production. At the same time, every aspect of life and the economy—from transportation and construction to healthcare and consumer goods—relies on materials.

It turns out that solving this dilemma is key to solving a host of other pressing societal problems as well.

“To make materials sustainable, they will need to be designed in ways that minimize the adverse impacts of their production and use—and in ways that enable their reuse in perpetuity,” said Alexander Cooke, General Manager of CSIRO’s Missions Program. CSIRO’s Missions are large-scale collaborative research initiatives that seek to solve Australia’s biggest challenges.

Cooke added: “This approach, known as a circular economy, is core to addressing the six national challenges that guide CSIRO’s activities. These challenges include food security, environmental resilience, energy and natural resources security, and creating Australia’s future industries and jobs.”

Indeed, the processes developed by Hsiao’s and Martin’s teams demonstrate how innovative, sustainable materials can address numerous problems at the same time. In addition to the potential benefits for land reclamation and agricultural fertilization, nanocellulose-based materials can absorb contaminants in water and be used to make water purification filters.

Yet, advancing sustainable materials is no easy task. It will require a complete rethinking of each material’s life cycle, which includes extraction of natural resources, design and manufacture of products, product use by consumers, recycling, reuse, and other options at the end of a product’s life. For instance, products can be designed to be easily recycled or reused, or they can be manufactured with longer-lasting materials. These and other solutions will require a high level of collaboration among the multitude of entities worldwide that play a role in each material’s life cycle.

The Convergence Accelerator: An “Expansive Vision”

Recognizing that these complex challenges cannot be solved by a single country, organization, or scientific discipline, CSIRO partnered with NSF on the joint solicitation for sustainable materials research. The partnership taps into NSF’s Convergence Accelerator. This unique program funds teams from disparate academic disciplines, industry sectors, non-profit organizations, and government to combine ideas, methods, and technologies. The aim is to make discoveries that have real-world applications and address society’s biggest challenges.

“The objective of the Convergence Accelerator is not to commercialize late-stage technologies already targeted to serve a specific application,” said Linda Molnar, who directs the sustainable materials track of the Convergence Accelerator. “Rather, it is designed to help researchers advance a promising preliminary discovery or concept—or a partially finished prototype—by working potential users of the solution to find the applications with the largest benefits for humanity.”

The researchers have been awarded funding for an initial, nine-month planning phase. During this phase, they present their ideas to different user groups and learn how they may or may not be useful to them. Numerous structured interviews with users help guide the technology development to better meet societal and market needs. The researchers will also use the insights to add new collaborators and partnerships and to develop an initial prototype.

“Perhaps the researchers learn about a new, more promising application and need to do more fundamental research to make that application feasible,” said Molnar. “At this early stage of the project, the researchers are not wedded to one particular vision. They’re open to new ideas and new collaborators.”

Hsiao and Martin have already assembled a multidisciplinary team of 22 researchers, educators, and other experts from 7 universities, 5 companies, and 5 government and non-profit organizations spanning the U.S., Australia, Sweden, and Africa. The team will serve as the base for identifying and engaging with potential user groups around the world. These might include farmers, clean water agencies, land reclamation organizations, and low-income communities, among others. Interactions with users can uncover new applications for nanocellulose-based materials and inform the design of material application techniques.

Through an intensive curriculum designed by the Convergence Accelerator, the researchers are learning new ways to incorporate the needs of real-world users into their designs. And they’re cultivating a mindset that prioritizes applications with transformational environmental and economic benefits at community, national, and global scales.

“NSF’s approach forces the researchers out of their comfort zones very quickly and into an outlook that is wide open to new possibilities,” said Martin. “The huge number of networks and connections with users and other partners, in Australia and globally, is bound to yield many valuable new initiatives.”

The planning phase informs a second, longer phase, in which the researchers further develop their prototypes and demonstrate their technologies and solutions in collaboration with diverse sectors, including non-profit organizations, educators, academia, and industry. They also prepare a sustainability plan for their solutions. Teams funded for the planning phase must compete for funding in the second phase by submitting proposals and participating in formal pitches.

“With this approach, the end result of the research has broader applicability and a greater chance of commercial success,” said Molnar. “Compared to a traditional commercialization program, it’s a much more expansive vision that seeks to connect the potential benefits of an emerging technology to diverse groups and communities.”

Transforming Plastic Waste into Home Goods

The centerpiece of the second joint U.S.-Australia project is 3D printing technology—a process that involves laying down successive layers of material to manufacture three-dimensional objects. Texas-based re:3D has developed a 3D printer with the remarkable ability to transform shredded plastic waste into objects. In contrast, most 3D printers available today get jammed when shredded plastic is fed into the printer. They can only handle plastic that has been sent to processing centers and converted into small pellets. One of re:3D’s newest products is Gigalab, a portable shipping container equipped with all the hardware needed to process and 3D-print from plastic waste—without relying on remote waste processing companies.

The preliminary concept in this project is to further develop Gigalab into a scalable, easily deployable “micro-factory” that enables disadvantaged communities to turn local plastic waste into furniture and other home goods. The potential result: new local economies and jobs. This could be particularly beneficial for Australia, which has numerous remote communities with limited earning opportunities.

re:3D has joined forces with researchers at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales. They are investigating how to minimize Gigalab’s energy consumption while making it a comfortable place to work. This may involve redesigning the structure that houses the 3D printer—and even adding solar panels.

A second Australian partner, Western Sydney University, has expertise in the materials science and engineering of polymers (long-chained molecules in plastics) and their use in 3D printing. This team is analyzing how the 3D printing process should be optimally conducted for recycled plastic materials and how the characteristics of the printed materials vary depending on the plastics fed into the printing system. These analyses aim to ensure that the technology ultimately provides high-quality 3D-printed products to end users. Two teams at the University of Texas at Austin are participating. One is evaluating how to quantify the environmental and economic benefits of diverting plastic waste from landfills to make new products. The other team is creating a tool for users to customize designs for the products.

Another key partner is affordable housing organization Austin Habitat for Humanity. As a potential end user of the technology, the organization is informing the team about the needs and preferences of low-income homeowners who may ultimately operate the technology or use the finished goods. The group has relevant experience running a discount home improvement store that sells low-cost building materials and home improvement supplies. It seeks to reduce the amount of waste its stores and construction projects send to landfills.

“We’re committed to making this technology accessible for underrepresented groups so that they can create value from waste and thrive economically,” said re:3D Co-Founder Samantha Snabes. “An important part of our work is engaging with different communities and having conversations with many potential end-users. We will be asking ourselves hard questions like, ‘Do we have the right stakeholders? If not, who are they? Are there aspects of this technology that are better than others?’”

Training the Next-Generation of Sustainable Materials Workers

An important component of the sustainable materials research is education and training for the current and future sustainable materials workforce, whether it be in academia, industry, or other sectors. The idea is to create more jobs domestically in Australia and the U.S—particularly in underserved communities. A robust corps of skilled workers across many sectors is urgently needed to address the many challenges associated with making materials more sustainable.

“We want to provide equitable opportunities for people to be involved in emerging technologies and industries,” said NSF’s Molnar.

Training and job creation are key objectives for both Australian-U.S. research teams awarded funding. The Stony Brook University and University of Queensland teams plan to amplify existing workforce development programs at their universities to train underserved groups. The aim to build skills related to the production and use of nanocellulose-based materials. For example, one area of training might be how to apply hydrogels in coastal reclamation projects.

“We are only a month into the project, but I can honestly say that the Convergence Accelerator is one of the best projects I have ever been a part of,” said University of Queensland’s Martin. “I can see how the Accelerator’s approach can compress the timeline for advancing technologies—and ultimately save taxpayer money on government-funded research.”