Published 2020-06-18

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Safe by design: Mistra TerraClean’s in-house LCA training for chemists

Mistra TerraClean is aimed at developing materials to remove pollutants from air, water and soil. The programme is now in its third year and the approach is based on the fact that materials development and life-cycle assessment (LCA) are inseparable. Using LCA from the start enables immediate detection of harmful environmental and health effects in the short and long term.

Professor Ian Cotgreave, who collaborates with Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE) and heads Mistra TerraClean’s fourth work package, says that applying LCA in early chemical-synthesis design is relatively unique.

‘Life-cycle assessments are often made after new chemical substances and new materials have been developed, and only then are potential negative effects on the environment and health discovered. With our “safe-by-design” approach, we can continuously optimise the process and minimise the risks, and we get no surprises in the final phase.’

According to Cotgreave, this approach has meant a step change from traditional chemical development. The chemists get supplementary training to gain a holistic perspective, which means that they do not produce materials that pose risks to individuals or the environment throughout their entire life chain. RISE and IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute are important partners. The LCA process is highly focused on energy use, but also covers every aspect of the materials and by-products, ranging from manufacture, packaging and use to deconstruction, recycling or recovery.

‘Going into a university lab and applying LCA early in the chemical process involves educational challenges. But the chemists in the programme have learnt that the work calls for a holistic view. For instance, we use artificial intelligence (AI) here, since it’s impossible to include all the parameters in a human brain. And the more knowledge of potential effects we have along the way, the easier it is to modify and hone the process without risks.’

The approach also simplifies the work of meeting regulatory requirements and the EU’s REACH chemicals legislation, which requires large amounts of ecotoxicity data.

‘We’re now showing that Mistra TerraClean’s concept and mission are workable, and we hope the programme will be a model for the entire safe-by-design process. The aim is for it to become a permanent feature that keeps adding new substances and materials. That can have a big impact, especially on the pharmaceutical industry, where only one in a thousand substances ultimately proves commercially viable,’ Cotgreave says.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are among the substance types that Mistra TerraClean has chosen to focus on. Jointly with Swedavia, the state-owned airport enterprise, colleagues from IVL and KTH Royal Institute of Technology are working to establish a beta test in a field study. Cotgreave hopes the tests at Bromma Stockholm Airport will be able to deliver preliminary results before year-end. Since several of Sweden’s drinking-water sources have been contaminated by PFAS emissions and have had to be closed, effective purification technology has immense potential.

Mistra TerraClean is also working with Boliden to remove heavy metals from wastewater, and planning a project on drug residues in sewage. In these cases, the challenge is not the purification technique, but how to dispose of these substances after removal. The coronavirus pandemic has also left its mark on the programme and discussions are ongoing about the focus on tracking and tracing infection, and a possible project to capture viruses in the municipal water supply, Cotgreave recounts.

‘Whatever it’s about, effects and risks need to be identified and reviewed from the start and during the work. We need to know exactly what happens, both short and long term, to the substances and materials we’re developing. It’s about raising our eyes and using both microscope and telescope.’