• 25th Jul 2022
  • Company News Industry Insights

Designing technology for an inclusive circular economy

Engineering and the development of new technologies are all about problem solving, something our Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Sandy, encounters on a day-to-day basis.

With major advancements in the way technologies are being designed, we took some time out to discuss with him how technologies are having a transformational effect across globe, ushering us towards an inclusive, circular economy to create positive economic, environmental and societal impact.

Do you believe innovative technology can help companies lead the transition to a circular economy faster and more efficiently?

The short answer is yes. Without technology it’s not possible to achieve a circular economy.

It’s no surprise that in the digital age that we are in, when people think of technology, they tend to think of common everyday items such as electronic devices, computers, tools and so on, quickly bypassing the influence that technology has had on our global economy.

The pace of innovation in the technology industry, one of the world’s fastest growing sectors, is accelerating circular solutions tenfold. Technologies centred around big data, system control and communication are helping us understand, optimise, and make our processes more circular and efficient. By improving connections, currency and information exchange, they are helping us empower and influence society, creating a digital roadmap for a circular economy.

However, underlying information and digital technologies are tangible real-world materials including; commodities, foods and fuels. Most of these things are derived from natural capital of one form or another, and to create an inclusive circular economy, whilst mitigating climate change, we must preserve these resources that are limited.

Unfortunately, in combination with digital and information technologies, other ‘hard’ technologies tend to exploit the natural materials that we rely on. It’s innovation and development of new technologies that will advance the way that resources are consumed and produced. This supported by digitalisation, optimisation, automation, and communication is what will make our economy less wasteful, more efficient and therefore more profitable, making a circular economy become a reality. This is what we are looking to achieve at SEM.

Over the past 4 years, what are some of the most notable changes you have seen when it comes to designing technology?

Technology design is a continuum, improvements to methods and efficiency of design are made constantly, little by little.

When I first entered the engineering profession some 25+ years ago, design methods tended to be much more analytical, centred around calculations by hand. This helped to promote a good understanding of first principles and practical knowledge, but often the approach was time consuming and expensive. These days simulations are shaping the way that we can validate results, providing much more accuracy than long winded calculations, ultimately reducing lead times and costs.

With the above practicalities aside, the most notable change to design over perhaps the last 10 years, but certainly and increasingly over the last 4 years or so, is how the whole ethos of design has and is changing.

Design is becoming more inclusive, less linear and increasingly circular. In days gone by, technology, whether a piece of equipment or a single component, was designed solely for the purpose it would serve. There was often little thought put into what would happen to it when it reached its end of life; Can it be re-used or recycled? Are the raw materials it’s made from a finite or sustainable resource? What are the environmental effects? What is the carbon footprint of its manufacture, operation or disposal? Do its positive effects on society outweigh its negative social effects?

The industry as a whole has shifted from designing products to designing integrated, sustainable, technological, economic and environmental systems. We no longer design for only the solitary end user, but for an interconnected population.

Are there certain regulations which are increasing the demand for technologies which design waste and pollution out of their value chain?

Globally, political commitments are being made to encourage circular methods of working and to reduce environmental impact. Most notably the Paris Agreement’s international treaty on climate change, which came into force in 2016 and was adopted by 192 states and the EU. Its commitments can only be met by the adoption of less wasteful circular practices and a reduction in reliance on fossil fuels (which largely go hand-in-hand). This political commitment is now being translated into policy and legislation in the form of regulations all over the world.

In July 2020, amendments to four EU directives came into force specifically aimed at encouraging reuse and recycling, to prevent waste that could be recycled from being diverted to landfill. Additional legislation has also come from these changes on a variety of issues, such as single use plastics.

One piece of new legislation that is particularly pertinent to SEM is EU regulation 2019/1009, which focuses, encourages, and sets quality requirements around fertilisers derived from recycled and/or organic materials. This is exactly what we are doing with our H2OPEand in part PLUTUS technologies.

Synthetic fertilisers are not only produced from fossil fuels and other finite resources, but they also have an enormous carbon footprint. We have already demonstrated that our H2OPE solution can produce fertiliser in a practically carbon neutral way.

The UK and devolved governments have already committed to enforcement of the above EU legislation. The UK also has a resource and waste strategy to support and strengthen options for re-use, re-manufacture, repair and recycling. Put simply, the evolution of global regulations is trending towards SEM’s ethos and business model as time goes on.

Tell us about an exciting project you are currently working on…

It’s tough to pick just one, they are all exciting!

The laboratory and engineering teams are currently working on the design of a small prototype H2OPE system for a series of trials on dairy farms. This project is being conducted with the backing of Innovate UK and by association, DEFRA.

We are also working on the design of the first commercial H2OPE systems which will be installed in Northern Ireland in late 2023. The systems are currently being pushed through planning by our architects and the civil engineering design of groundworks and services is being completed. The systems will be installed at three existing, separate AD plants, with the first utilising biodiesels for heat and the other two will exploit recovered heat from on-site CHP plants. This will not only reduce environmental harm and disposal costs but generate jobs locally and significant profit for the clients.

Prior to commencing the manufacture of the commercial H2OPE system, the team completed the first large scale test of the process. This was a fantastic milestone and provided invaluable data and experience to the team which will be hugely beneficial during the full system design. We are currently awaiting the results of a large-scale pelleting trial and detailed water treatment analysis which will complete the circle.