But when it comes to implementing such circular economy initiatives — and working with other companies to drive more closed-loop processes — where do you start?
One company helping its clients turn corporate recycling concepts into commercial reality is Axion Consulting. The UK firm, part of Axion Group, develops, tests and operates resource recovery and recycling systems.
Axion Consulting senior engineer Sam Haig told Environmental Leader how his company helps others improve their waste management performance using laboratory-based process development.
“Axion Consulting uses its knowledge of a broad range of material separation and treatment processes from many different industrial sectors to work with clients to develop and validate novel ways of dealing with their wastes, by developing innovative process routes or outlets that can recover valuable products, and reduce the volume of waste being lost to landfill or incineration,” Haig said. “Axion’s focus is on practical testing, evaluated at each stage on a commercial and environmental basis, in order to ensure that development effort is not wasted on in-viable processes.”
One example of this is its collaborative “Recover R&D” project with fuel cell components manufacturer Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells and nonwoven materials manufacturer Technical Fibre Products. The project was co-funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.
Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells manufactures membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs), the key component in proton exchange membrane fuel cells, using material supplied in part by Technical Fibre Products.
“These companies wanted to investigate recycling routes for the MEA materials, and approached Axion to assist with this,” Haig said.
So Axion’s team developed a process to separate and recover the high-value platinum and polymer materials from fuel cell membrane electrode assemblies. Haig explained how the circular process works.
First, Axion processes end of life MEAs from the fuel cells, separating the components and recovering valuable platinum and polymer materials.
Then Axion sends the carbon fiber composites from the MEAs to Technical Fibre Products. Carbon fiber is recovered from these composites by Technical Fibre Products. The recovered carbon fiber is blended with virgin fiber to manufacture new composites.
Axion also sends the recovered platinum and polymer materials to Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells. These materials are blended with virgin materials and combined with the carbon fiber composites from Technical Fibre Products to manufacture new MEAs.
The new materials recovery process has a carbon footprint of about half of the current “base case” of recovering only platinum group metals through traditional processes, Haig said. It requires significantly less raw materials because the recovered polymer can be blended with virgin polymer without compromising the fuel cell’s performance.
“From this specific work we have proved that valuable materials, including platinum, can be recovered for reuse in brand new hydrogen fuel cells,” Haig said. “As the hydrogen economy continues to develop and grow, the technological capability to recover its valuable resources will be crucial. We’ve demonstrated a viable process that we developed ourselves from just an idea.”
He says commercial-scale development “may be viable within the next decade.”
It’s a win-win: environmentally safe and economically viable.