Technologies such as our beloved smartphones have taken the world by storm, but some of the materials needed to make them are in short supply. This is also true for other crucial applications - industrial catalysts, for instance. Two projects jointly funded by the EU and Japan have looked into possible substitutes for various critical metals.
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The Irena project developed single-walled carbon nanotube (SWCNT) thin films to replace indium and gallium in electronic devices. The Novacam project focused on possible substitutes for critical metals used in the conversion of biomass into chemicals and fuels. Both were implemented in the context of the scientific collaboration between the EU and Japan.
The critical metals to which these projects related are included on the EUs list of raw materials that are highly important to its economy, but to which its access could potentially be at risk. Typically, these materials are hard and in some cases, impossible to replace, and for most of them, little or nothing is currently sourced from end-of-life recycling.
The two projects ended in 2017. Irena achieved significant advances with regard to both metallic and semiconducting SWCNTs, such as the development of a novel technology for the extraction of the latter type. It produced highly advanced transparent conductors, as well as film of a degree of transparency that would not be achievable with the more commonly used indium tin oxide. Further work related to touch sensors, thin film transistors, and the use of SWCNT films in solar cells.
In Novacam, activities centred on the transformation of lignocellulosic biomass plant dry matter such as straw and husks into renewable industrial feedstocks. Currently, the catalytic processes that are used for this purpose tend to involve costly critical materials such as platinum and rare earth elements.
As part of its quest for alternatives based on more abundant and affordable materials, Novacam identified, assessed or developed a number of catalysts. It also devised novel methods for the conversion of cellulose and glucose into chemicals that can subsequently be transformed in a variety of substances or materials. Its findings could help to reduce the cost of biomass conversion, boosting the viability of alternatives to energy and petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels.