Sustainable Solution

The importance of recovering and recycling materials is topic of Diran Apelian seminar
November 10, 2015

• You may think differently about your cell phone, laptop, and the periodic table after a seminar on Materials for Sustainability: The Role of Materials Science and Engineering for Sustainable Development in the 21st Century, presented by Professor Diran Apelian, this afternoon, Nov. 10.

The seminar will take place in Lower Perreault at 5 p.m. Refreshments will be served.

Apelian, Alcoa-Howmet Professor of Engineering and founding director of the Metal Processing Institute, promises “a different kind of seminar than people are used to attending.”

“There won’t be a lot of equations. It will be interactive and fun, but also require people to reflect,” he says, noting that the talk is for the entire WPI community.

“I would like to tell the story of how much the world has changed in the last 30 years—the quality of life has improved on the planet. At the same time, we’re using more and more of the periodic table, and at the end of the [product’s] useful life, those materials are not recovered. They are not reused or refurbished. Look at your computer or iPhone—they contain over 59 elements. But at the end of the end of their life, most of those elements are not recovered,” he says.

The purpose of the seminar is to raise consciousness with data, then provide solution paths, of which there are three: education, technology and innovation, and public policy, Apelian says.

One of biggest challenges to these solutions is that different countries have different approaches to sustainability, even though the world has the same set of resources, says Apelian. So “solving” the problem in one place may negatively affect another. Using cars driving down the Mass Pike as a metaphor, Apelian says that in one car the driver looks around and sees a well-maintained, litter-free landscape. Suddenly, the driver in the car ahead opens the windows and starts tossing garbage out onto the highway.

“What are they doing? They’re cleaning their car,” he explains. But their clean car now affects the experience of the other drivers.

Likewise, when people drop off electronic waste in recycling bins, they assume all the materials will be recycled. But a lot of the electronic waste containing many elements ends up in these bins, and sometimes the company that collects them sells to yet another other companies in nations where they don’t have regulations, and the materials get dumped, says Apelian.

“We, as a nation close our eyes. That’s why the solutions have to be global.”

Some countries have taken the lead, and Apelian says we can all learn from their examples. Germany, for example, has passed a rule that makes manufacturers responsible for what happens to materials after the product’s life has ended, he says.

“If that was the law in the U.S., manufacturers would make things differently.

In Norway, people who own large cars are not only heavily taxed, but the community views these drivers as foolish, so there is peer pressure to drive smaller cars, he says.

“We’re making great progress in certain countries from a big-picture point of view, as well as the Center for Resource Recovery and Recycling at WPI,” says Apelian.

Apelian is widely recognized for his innovative work in metal processing and for his leadership as a researcher and educator. His research has helped establish mechanisms and fundamentals in metal processing and helped lay the foundations for significant industrial developments. In particular, his work in the fields of molten metal processing, plasma processing, spray casting, and shape casting of aluminum alloys can be described as pioneering work. More recently, his work in the development of technologies to recover and recycle materials is critically important for a sustainable future.

He began his sustainability consciousness-raising crusade 10 years ago when asked to give a distinguished lecture on materials and society, he says. As he thought back on his career as a materials engineer and how defense departments had funded the bulk of his research, he wondered where all those materials eventually ended up, and whether he was helping society.

“I did a calculation of how much of funding goes to defense and how much to things that humans need,” such as energy, food and water, shelter, mobility, and health. “Each of these is greatly affected by materials—and the things I was making were not addressing those needs,” he says. “It was a ‘eureka’ moment.”

One of best definitions of sustainability is to make sure we are leaving Earth for the next generation at least as good as we found it, says Apelian, adding, “It’s important for engineers to have a voice.”