Sustainability is an important policy issue for KU Leuven. The university promotes sustainability at all levels, with efforts to reduce waste and to favour rational energy use and sustainable transport. Sustainability also has a place in education and in research. Science@leuven met two researchers committed to develop knowledge and technology for sustainable materials management (“Science for Society”). Professor Koen Binnemans is head of the Laboratory of Metallurgical Chemistry, while Dr. Ir. Peter Tom Jones is IRF Research Manager Sustainable Metallurgy. Together they are the founders of SOLVOMET, KU Leuven’s Industrial Service Centre of Solvometallurgy. (Siska Waelkens, Leuven, 29/11/2018)
What is SOLVOMET?
Koen Binnemans: SOLVOMET is quite unique within the Faculty of Science. The centre’s aim goes beyond blue sky research, as we explicitly want to take steps towards valorization of our research results. SOLVOMET aims at developing processes for the recovery of metals, including rare earths metals, from different materials, in a sustainable way. We have unique expertise in solvometallurgy, which means that in the extraction and leaching processes we are replacing water by other solvents, from non-polar organic solvents to ionic liquids.
Peter Tom Jones: The SOLVOMET Centre is part of a larger KU Leuven initiative : SIM² KU Leuven. SIM² KU Leuven’s mission is to develop, organize and implement problem-driven, science-deep research and future-oriented education, contributing to the environmentally friendly production and recycling of metals, minerals and engineered materials within a circular-economy context. SIM² covers a number of different research lines, and brings together groups from the faculties of Science (Chemistry, Geology), Engineering Science (Chemical Engineering, Materials Engineering, Civil Engineering) but also from Economy, Law and Psychology.
KB: It involves a unique collaboration with KU Leuven’s Industrial Research Fund IOF. IOF has appointed research managers (like Tom) that work in a cluster of chosen themes. This collaboration stands for a synergy with professors involved in research in the different domains. I can focus on science and development of new concepts, while Tom finds industrial partners that provide a sounding board and possible funding. This concept is still rarely used in exact science, we don’t have an established tradition in contract research with industry.
PTJ: Colleagues abroad look at our IOF managers concept with envy. Both industry and universities benefit; a group of professors will “yield more”. And metallurgy is a field with an urgent need for effective solutions. Climate challenges are well known, we obviously need a drastic “decarbonation” of our society. The transition to a low carbon economy will require substantial amounts of specific metals: not only base metals but also critical ones. Without critical metals, we can’t produce things like motors for electric cars and bikes. Neodymium is an example: there is enough neodymium in the world, but it is not readily accessible and right now 80 percent of neodymium on the market is produced in China, with methods that we may have reservations about. We want to be able to produce neodymium with clean primary mining processes, and we want to recover and recycle neodymium from process residues and end-of-life products. The same goes for lithium, cobalt …
Download the read the full interview in Science@leuven (Volume 16, Issue 62, p. 14-17) here.