Advanced materials: steadily sustainable and safe

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Advanced materials are materials of the most diverse chemical composition and form.

Advanced materials are deliberately designed in their composition and structure so that they can fulfil new functional requirements. They promise potential for a wide range of technical applications.

Source: Adobe Stock / Kingline

Advanced materials are innovative materials of most diverse chemical composition and form. They can offer solutions to global challenges. Examples are carrier systems for novel active ingredients or graphene for future use in batteries. To ensure that the materials are safe and sustainable over their life cycle, certain cornerstones need to be considered.

Numerous examples from the past show how important it is to take a long-term perspective and comprehensively assess chemicals and materials. For example, coatings based on perfluorinated and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) were considered promising, but turned out to be detrimental to living organisms and habitats due to their properties.

In the area of tension between the promising use and the possible challenges of advanced materials, it must be ensured that possible risks are identified at an early stage. In addition, it is imperative to carefully weigh the benefits and challenges of the applications for environmental and health protection and other aspects of sustainability.
The position paper of the German Environment Agency (UBA) "Advanced Materials - Cornerstones for a Safe and Sustainable Life Cycle" considers this area of tension for selected key areas of sustainable transformation (such as climate, resource and health protection, energy and transport transition as well as chemical safety) and describes exemplary which conflicting goals can arise.
For example, new types of materials can increase the performance and service life of batteries, which are essential for the energy transition. On the other hand, these battery systems consist of substances or materials with properties of concern. The recycling of components and the reuse of valuable raw materials contained therein are also not yet fully developed.

Safety and sustainability from development to recycling

In order to be able to actively face the conflicting goals, UBA points out a number of cornerstones. These include, among others:

  • the establishment of early warning systems that allow the timely identification of advanced materials that give cause for concern, but also of those featuring significant gaps in knowledge. A first example already available is the Early4AdMa system, which uses key questions from the areas of safety for humans and the environment, sustainability and regulatory coverage to identify need for action.
  • It is also important to strengthen existing approaches for green and sustainable chemistry (such as the UNEP Green and Sustainable Chemistry Initiative) by developing them further and applying them more than before.
  • In order to integrate these approaches in the innovation process, methods such as the OECD Test Guidelines and Guidance Documents are needed that allow for an adequate assessment of advanced materials with regard to their potential impacts on human health and the environment, but also the sustainability of their applications. These could be provided, for example, within the framework of a European Test Guidelines Strategy.
  • In order to ensure that advanced materials are and remain safe and sustainable, it is necessary to qualify developers of these materials to take safety and sustainability into account in the innovation process, for example as part of university education.

The cornerstones developed by UBA link, among others, to the European Commission's current initiatives on the sustainability of chemicals and other initiatives within the framework of the EU Green Deal. In principle, these initiatives are suitable for implementing the above-mentioned cornerstones for the safety and sustainability of advanced materials. However, this can only succeed if new and previously unknown challenges that may accompany advanced materials are managed in the process. With its commitment to the topic, UBA would like to support these initiatives in the context of advanced materials.

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 advanced materials  chemical safety  transformation