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September 15, 2021

The Impact of Materials on Sustainability

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, over 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste were generated in the US in 2018. Of this total, just 94 million tons, or about 32.1%, were recycled or composted. The remainder was sent to landfills.

While much of municipal solid waste is food, landfills are also crowded with discarded consumer and industrial products. The end-of life environmental impact of these products and increasing recycling rates are key areas of focus for the world’s manufacturers.

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Of course, engineers can also leverage materials to deliver positive environmental outcomes. Metal alloys and plastic composites have demonstrated their ability to make aircraft and cars lighter, increasing their fuel efficiency. Renewable energy sources, coupled with flexible energy storage systems, particularly battery technologies show promise to displace fossil fuels and their associated carbon emissions. The reliable performance of solar-powered energy grids depends on optimizing the materials involved in energy collection and storage. 

There can be no doubt that material and process engineering provide important parts of the solution for combatting climate change.


Materials and the Environment: A Complex Issue

According to Professors Michael Ashby and David Cebon — who co-founded Granta Design, the world’s premier provider of materials information technology, in 1994 — assessing the overall sustainability of products over their entire lifespan, is a complex task requiring comprehensive data for the environmental performance of materials and manufacturing processes. 

With the integration of Granta’s materials data management and selection capabilities into the Ansys product family in 2019, product developers can now more easily consider essential environmental issues.  

“Integrating Granta’s decades of material intelligence experience into the Ansys simulation portfolio gives engineers access to volumes of data on carbon and energy footprint, recyclability, biodegradability, and other relevant characteristics,” says Cebon, an Ansys Fellow and mechanical engineering professor at Cambridge University. “Because every product has unique environmental implications, engineers need to consider a wide range of sustainability issues, including environmental footprint, current and pending environmental regulations and the consequent supply risk. This requires comprehensive, high-quality data about materials, processes, coatings, substances, legislation, geo-political factors, etc. 

“Is a material banned, or likely to be phased-out, in certain markets in the future? What are the performance implications when you make a material substitution? And will a performance degradation due to substitution, such as lower fuel efficiency, result in an even larger negative impact?” Cebon asks. “Technology helps illuminate and address many of these questions, but engineers typically need to conduct rigorous analysis to make optimal design decisions.” 

Ashby, a research professor and principal investigator at Cambridge’s Engineering Design Centre, agrees. 

“There can be no doubt that the trade-offs are very sophisticated ones,” says Ashby. “Many risks, such as government regulations, are time-dependent and difficult to predict in advance. And there is always new information emerging about the long-term impacts as materials break down. These are issues that product developers need to remain informed about.” 

Taking a Broader Look at Sustainability

Supporting sustainability via material and process selection doesn’t end with understanding environmental impacts. “The definition of sustainability is ‘the ability of an entity to continue operating effectively over the long term,'" notes Ashby. “And ‘the long term’ is a key phrase.”

Beyond environmental impacts, Ashby and Cebon argue that sustainability requires a materials supply chain that is stable, is traceable, and delivers positive social and economic outcomes. Engineers need to consider a host of factors, including community impact.

“As one example, historically the global mining industry hasn’t had the best reputation for its impacts on employees, local communities and land that has historical or cultural significance,” says Cebon. “These kinds of social impacts need to be accessible – ideally quantified so that materials engineers can consider them, along with environmental performance and engineering properties.” 

Ashby emphasizes that product developers also have to support the economic success of the larger enterprise. “There’s no quicker way for a company to become unsustainable than to go bankrupt,” he states. “So much attention is focused on environmental issues like climate change, and rightfully so. But sustainability also involves economic considerations. Designers have a fiduciary obligation to stakeholders to make materials choices that support positive financial results.”  

Product development teams need to look at material and product costs, but also the long-term security of the material supply chain and the likelihood of disruption. Especially at a time when critical materials are being managed by some countries as a key geopolitical asset in what’s termed ‘resource imperialism.’ Again, Ashby and Cebon point out that complex trade-offs are usually involved. 

Tackling the Sustainability Challenge

Given the breadth and depth of the analysis required to choose materials and processes in a sustainable manner, what exactly are product designers supposed to do?  

Both Cebon and Ashby agree that every product development team needs to have a disciplined process and tools in place for storing and applying materials data related to environmental, social, community and financial impacts. As consumers become more aware of climate change and social responsibility, every company has to ensure due diligence on their material and process selection — or risk damaging both brand image and market share.

“Sustainability, as it pertains to materials selection, can’t be a consideration that’s ‘bolted on’ at the last minute,” says Cebon. “It must be addressed from the earliest stages of design. Product developers should start with the biggest single consideration — for example, reducing a jet’s fuel consumption ― and then work from there. Later they might focus on how the parts of the plane could be recycled, or examine the end-to-end supply chain impacts, but the dominant factor is fuel consumption. Think about that first, and then move on to other sustainable design considerations.” 

Nuclear materials already have extensive traceability requirements. Cebon and Ashby want to see that extended to “critical” materials – those that are vital to the national economy but with supply chains that are not entirely secure. They believe that these materials should be carefully tracked and traced, creating a repository of readily available data about materials’ provenance, impacts and characteristics. Until that happens, it’s incumbent on individual designers to make carefully informed choices.

“One of the most important thing designers can do is gather and apply as much detailed information about their materials options as they can,” concludes Ashby. “That means structural characteristics, thermal characteristics and weight, but it also means looking at the multi-layered global supply chain, regulatory guidelines, social and human impacts, and costs. Sustainability means expanding your perspective and thinking about the entire life cycle of the material, in all of its aspects.” 

Product designers and Engineers can access Ansys Granta MI from their native Ansys Simulation tools. This offers instant access to a wide array of material properties in MaterialUniverse™ as well as embodied energy, CO2 footprint, recyclability and more. This insight into the material data for a particular component can then be used to understand the impact of their use on a product’s sustainability, early in design. Helping engineers make those complex trade-offs to select the right material. 

Find out more about how Ansys can help solve your sustainability challenges with an Ansys Granta MI product demonstration.

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