Engineering. Chemistry. Materials science. Applied physics. Applied mathematics. Every applied discipline that touches the supply chain will need to work together—to join up as a community—to solve the problems of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. Here we’re sharing thoughts from Oisik Das, Michael Försth, Jaime Gonzalez-Libreros, and Gabriel Sas at Luleå University of Technology, Sweden. Oisik Das is an Editorial Board Member of Materials Circular Economy.
We don't do research! We try to team up with like-minded driven people from academia and industry all around the globe to solve common issues plaguing the current human population. Hence, we do "Wesearch!" We endeavour to join forces in imparting sustainability in structures and materials by employing renewable constituents that also enhance performance properties and fire-safety.
Collaboration is the key- there is no project that could be completed by only one type of competency. It is critical that we borrow skills from elsewhere, apart from what we already have in our group in order to enrich the outcomes of projects and ‘wesearch’ activities. Our group has members that have a unique and varied set of skills, e.g. Gabriel Sas, who is leading the group, has a background in extending the lifespan of concrete structures and Oisik Das, on the other hand, is adept in developing structures from renewable constituents. Michael Försth possesses experience in rendering structures fire-safe whereas Jaime Gonzalez-Libreros is well-versed in testing the capacity and integrity of existing structures. Therefore, although our group is involved in structural and fire engineering, we aim to do so with sustainability in mind. This entails that our activities produce fewer greenhouse gases and other pollutants from the design phase, extraction of raw materials to the end-of-life of structures. Additionally, we attempt to create structural elements that require less maintenance, repair and re-building thereby prolonging their lifespan. In essence, our target is to minimise waste generation and carbon footprint. The focus of our ‘wesearch’ work is represented holistically by the image below (See Figure 1).
Figure 1: The infinity loop in construction that bestows sustainability (image by Gabriel Sas)
Our group has three short-term goals, all of which are intended to impart sustainability in structures. The first is the life extension of existing buildings and infrastructure. This theme is adopted to ensure that frequent re-building operations, that require demolition, raw material extraction, extensive logistics, etc. are avoided. Moreover, increasing the longevity of buildings also preserves their cultural heritage. The second short-term goal is to employ better materials and building methods wherein renewable constituents are used that lower the carbon footprint of the structures and implement designs that promote circularity. A prime example of this is the utilisation of renewable biochar (made from waste biomass) in making sustainable light-weight structures that concurrently exhibit better performance properties and fire-safety than the conventional counterparts (see Figure 2). The third short-term goal is to optimise resource utilisation, which is focussed on the efficient use of raw materials and processes that reduce the total energy and water consumption along with waste regeneration while encouraging effective reusing and recycling.
Our long-term goals are very well aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development goals (SDGs). In particular, we are heavily involved in SDGs 9, 12 and 13 that aim at industry innovation, responsible consumption/production and climate action, respectively. Due to our collaborative nature, we are also aligned to SDG 17 and as a university, we are extremely passionate about imparting quality education and conducting pedagogy-related research that are related to SDG 4. In summary, our research and education activities are designed to foster a positive learning and working environment, which encourage people to be the best version of themselves and contribute towards a sustainable future.
Figure 2: One of the short and long-term goals of the group is to use renewable materials to develop novel structures. Biochar, obtained from the thermo-chemical conversion of waste biomass, is being utilised by us at structural and Fire Engineering of LTU division to create light-weight and sustainable structures with enhanced performance properties and fire-safety (image by Oisik Das).
The inception and the propagation of COVID-19 have been devastating for the world with lives lost, travel curbed and incitement of medical emergencies, among others. Numerous countries imposed strict lockdown measures as a means to hinder the spread of the infection. Some demographics that were (and still are) adversely impacted by these lockdowns are students and researchers. Sweden, however, was not affected by lockdowns but the government recommended citizens to follow COVID-related rules pertaining to social distancing, working from home, etc. Consequently, classes were held online, and researchers worked from home. Individuals involved in experimental research were the most affected by this shift in the work environment and our group was one of them. There are means to overcome the aforementioned situation and this has been described through an article by Oisik Das (Polymers 2020, 12(8), 1848; https://doi.org/10.3390/polym12081848). However, not all the suggested solutions were able to be implemented in our group, although we have published quite a few review articles and conducted simulation studies, from the safety of our homes. People in Sweden, in general, and from our group, in particular, are quite responsible. Hence, we still performed laboratory work, whenever possible and necessary, to keep our research activities afloat. Figure 3 shows some of the experiments and activities that were carried out during the pandemic while respecting regulations. In summary, our group has learned to live with COVID and due to our adaptable and resilient nature, we were able to continue our education and research activities to an acceptable standard.
Figure 3: Experiments and activities that were carried out during the pandemic while respecting regulations at Structural and Fire Engineering division of LTU, Sweden.
Today we have a wide variety of communication channels that go from journal papers to traditional and social media. Each one of these channels, if used correctly, can be an excellent tool to spread our research and engage our target audience. However, this also means that we are inundated by information, and we need to find a way to stand out if we want our research to be visible. To achieve this goal, we need to make sure that what we are sharing is specifically tailored depending on the audience we are expecting to reach. This includes not only the content, prose style, and technical level but also the channels in which our research will be showcased. However, indistinctly of who we want to receive our message and the communication tool selected, we need to guarantee that such message is clear. If we are not clear, and explain our work in detail, results and its implications on the environment and the society, there is a high risk that our research will get lost in the sea of information that surround us. This not only applies when we want to involve policymakers, stakeholders and the general public, but also when we are reaching an expert audience. In other words, whether we choose to share our research in a prestigious journal or with a video in TikTok, if we are clear, we have a better chance to transmit our findings to the intended audience.
Introduction to networks relevant for the research topic is crucial, for dissemination of results but maybe more importantly for inspiration and guidance helping the early career researcher to focus research on applications where society needs and absorbs new knowledge and innovations. This, support with networking, is an area where senior colleagues can make a big difference. This is sometimes straightforward but sometimes less straightforward when the senior colleagues must take a step back on order to give their more junior colleagues the opportunity to becomes members in various working groups, committees, etc. Regarding a multifaceted dissemination, i.e. other channels than manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals and conferences, early career researchers can of course also benefit from help from senior colleagues, but in many cases in might be the senior colleagues that benefit from the skills of the juniors!
The funding is already in many cases tied to specific endeavours by society to reach specific impacts. In other cases funders are open for, and encourages, more curiosity-driven research. The specific technological products that serve us with a comfortable and good life today were developed based on some sort of engineering requirement specification. However, the underlying science, notably quantum physics paving the way for the semiconductor industry, did not evolve from research aiming for societal impact, but rather from curiosity-driven research. So we need both, and we today have funding schemes aiming for all levels in the Technology readiness levels, TRL-scale. What is a good balance? That is not an easy question to answer but it is not obvious that any major change is needed. However, looking at funding in the higher end of the TRL-scale there is a tendency for strong requirements on co-funding and participation by industry. This could be a problem for curiosity-driven research within applied sciences. Here it would be beneficial if the balance could be shifted towards a more generous funding culture that is more welcoming to bolder ideas, where success cannot always be guaranteed but where good, and maybe wild, ideas by applied researchers are encouraged and funded to a larger extent.
The answers were a collaborative effort by the following interviewees
Oisik Das, Michael Försth, Jaime Gonzalez-Libreros, and Gabriel Sas
Structural and Fire Engineering Division; Department of Civil, Environmental and Natural Resources Engineering; Luleå University of Technology; Luleå, Sweden- 97 187