Making a technology sustainable that doesn’t even exist yet

Umberto Salvagnin

Industrial ecologists Stefano Cucurachi and Flora Siebler are part of the new consortium PROGENY, which received 3.6 million euros from the European Commission. PROGENY is an exciting project that will study the possibilities of soap films for innovations, such as ultra-thin screens.

PROGENY is a project financed by the FET-OPEN programme of the European Commission. FET-OPEN aims to finance revolutionary innovations, which are high risk, but which are potentially disruptive. Stefano Cucurachi and Flora Siebler (see text box Leiden & PROGENY) from the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML) will evaluate the potential environmental impacts of this new technology. We asked four questions about their project.

To what kind of technologies could this new technique lead to?

Cucurachi: ‘In the case of PROGENY, a palette of technologies could be the result of the consortium effort. Future technologies could be organic electrochemical transistors or proton transistors (see text box Transistors), all of which are made up out of soap films, which are basically soap bubbles. The idea is to use the physical properties of such flexible films to create innovations. If successful, such technologies would radically change the electronic industry. For instance, massive streams of electronic waste would be reduced, such as lead, cadmium and mercury.’

Siebler: ‘These so-called proto-opto-electro-mechanical systems (POEMS) can have acoustic, optical and electronic properties and can be used in bioelectronic medicine, sensing, prosthetics and augmented biological perceptions. Electron-proton hybrid transistors can, for example, host living cells and form foundational precursors to bionic devices. There are other potential applications as well. The reason why the list is still open is that the project leaves room to expand the field of possible applications in the course of the next three and a half years.’

Leiden & PROGENY

Stefano Cucurachi is an assistant professor and the Programme Director of the Master’s Industrial Ecology. Flora Siebler recently joined Leiden University as a postdoc for the PROGENY project. Cucurachi received 358,000 euros out of the 3,6 million euro budget for assessing the sustainability of the technologies protruding from PROGENY.

How can you assess the sustainability of a technology that doesn’t even exist yet?

Cucurachi: ‘At CML, we have been working for years on the development of methods of quantitative sustainability assessment. In particular, we have been researching life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA methods allow for assessing the environmental impacts of systems across their full life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials to the end of their useful life, and across a broad set of impacts, from climate change to toxicity. Traditionally, we apply LCA to assess and compare existing product systems, such as fuel cars versus electric cars, or paper cups versus plastic cups. However, it may be expensive, slow, or impossible to change well-established systems based on the results of such studies. That’s why it would be better to already apply LCA in the design phase of products. In the past years, we have had the chance to work directly with technology developers, right at the earliest stages of innovation. We have had to modify existing LCA methods and software to do this. And now, through direct interaction with the expert, we can try to design out early regrettable choices and steer a technology to more sustainable pathways.’

Siebler: ‘In a consortium such as PROGENY, we can benefit from the incredible expertise of project partners, who are top scientists in their disciplines. We engage them right at the start in the LCA process, and together we establish a data collection protocol. The role of experts is also crucial when we assess the environmental performance of the technology under assessment in the future: they help us to create future scenarios.’

When can we expect the first instrument from PROGENY?

Cucurachi: ‘A foundational demonstrator will be developed in the early stages of the PROGENY project, somewhere in the first year. It will be a multi-purpose film support chamber with different sensing devices – such as acoustic and ultrasonic transducers – to test the wide range of properties. This first technology will undergo engineering optimisation. And with the help of our life cycle assessments, there might also be potential design improvements, as the developers will go back to the drawing board if our results suggest that something needs to change. We will explore new technological applications as well as their socio-environmental compatibility.’

How did you end up in this consortium?

Cucurachi: ‘I joined a meeting organised by our colleague Sylvestre Bonnet of the Leiden Institute of Chemistry. Sylvestre is working on another project, SOFIA, which also makes use of soap films. But in their case, it’s for artificial photosynthesis. During the meeting, Sylvestre introduced me to Indraneel Sen, the scientist and mastermind behind PROGENY. It turned out that we could help him in the project, as the European Commission asks for a quantitative sustainability assessment and LCA studies to happen in parallel with the development of a new technology when funding new projects, such as PROGENY. So we will further develop LCA methods and help technology developers in the process. Sustainability by design is what we are striving for!’

Transistors

Transistors are semiconductors and basic building blocks of almost all electronic devices, such as computers, mobile phones, and even washing machines. They allow to amplify or switch electronic signals and electrical power. Siebler: ‘Let’s say transistors “translate” (electrical) information. When using soap film, we expand the available “languages”. With these organic electrochemical or proton transistors we can translate between electrical signals and chemical signals, enabling electrical-organic interfaces, such as prostheses connected to nerve endings. Soap films also have acoustic properties that enable “translation” towards sound.’

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