VERAM Roadmap 2050

The VERAM project is producing a Roadmap for European Raw Materials in 2050 – covering raw materials research and innovation (R&I) coordination.  It combines the ETP SMR (Sustainable Minerals Resources) and FTP (Forest Technology Platform).  There is a consultation open until January 15th (extended from December 15th).  Go here to take part in the consultation (at time of writing this page is not updated with the extended deadline).  The outcome will be communicated at a meeting on 17 April in Brussels.

The roadmap covers “non-energy, non-agricultural” raw materials used in industry – but this still includes wood and natural rubber.  It’s not just production of new materials, but also secondary raw materials within the circular economy (reuse and recycling etc).

So, for this roadmap we have two material categories:

  • Abiotic (things that don’t come from living organisms)
  • Biotic (things that do come from living organisms)

Since there is the “non-agricultural” part of the scope, the biotic materials are forest products. (We might question why we have a distinction between forestry and agriculture in so many things, but in this case it is the scope of the funding that supports VERAM).  Wood and pulp fibre are obviously included here – but natural rubber also gets high level mention since it is a strategic material for which European industry has a complete import dependency. The forest-based sector is identified as a key enabler for a low-carbon, biobased society (of course).

The roadmap (44 pages) has the following elements:

  • 1: supply of raw materials
    • 1.1 New exploration and harvesting technologies for a sustainable supply
    • 1.2 Mobilising an increased supply of raw materials from EU sources
  • 2: production of raw materials
    • 2.1 Development of resource efficient processing, refining and converting technologies
    • 2.2 Valorisation of production residues
  • 3: closed loops
    • 3.1 Increasing collection through efficient sorting, separation and detection
    • 3.2 Recycling technologies adapted to complex, durable, miniaturised and material efficient products
    • 3.3 Developing and integrating methods for assessing and optimising cost and benefit in recycling
  • 4: new products and applications
    • 4.1 Substitution of critical raw materials
    • 4.2 Development of new biobased products
    • 4.3 Raw materials for hybrid and composite materials and applications

The motivation for the roadmap is that population growth and increasing standards of living will be putting a greater demand on raw materials – of which we have a limited supply (and even though wood is a renewable resource, it is still limited).  There are also environmental reasons for being more resource efficient – and technological developments that make this more possible.  The EU is dependent on imports for many of its raw materials (and UK is very dependent on imports of wood).  It is hoped that “A more coordinated approach towards raw materials management will help reduce external supply dependency and lead to an efficient use of resources.”

The biotic value chain is considered as two elements: the forest-based sector and natural rubber – both forest products of course, but the distinction is made because natural rubber is imported. The forest-based sector is described as “woodworking”, “furniture”, “pulp and paper manufacturing and converting”, “printing” and “forest owners”.  These are rather strange sounding titles for native English speakers, but they correspond to the pre-existing groupings in European policy.  (Woodworking is the heading that covers sawmilling and panel products for timber construction).

Here is a summary of our thoughts on the consultation document relating to wood:

1.1 New exploration and harvesting technologies for a sustainable supply

The roadmap says hardly anything about improving the use of wood from forests.  There is mention of the growth in European forests being much bigger than the annual harvest but no detail as to why this is, or what opportunities are presented.  We would like to see better segregation of wood to the most appropriate markets (better use of what we are already using) and the bringing into the wood-chain wood from (currently) under-managed forests and more diverse species (making use of what we are not already using).  There is no vision for what the sector will look like in 2050 (literally, this section is blank) – although there is a reasonable list of research needs for 2030 (but mostly technical developments without mention of change in the nature of forests for shifting societal priorities – and crucially things already in motion from past planting decisions).  Precision forestry is mentioned in 1.2 but in our view this belongs in this section.

1.2 Mobilising an increased supply of raw materials from EU sources

There is some overlap of this topic with 1.1 since making better use of the current harvest does increase raw material supply – but mostly this item is about increasing productivity of current forest land, bringing more land into forest, and bringing more of the existing forest into productivity.  In all these areas there is a need to improve the balance of production with other societal and environmental needs – and, crucially, other forest uses.  Much of current forestry is multipurpose – and UK is perhaps a leader here due to many of our forests being close to population centres, and the competition for land between agriculture and forestry (and scope to make this less “either or”).  The vision within the roadmap seems mostly focused in the same idea of productive forests that we’ve had in the past – and just increasing their output.  In reality forests (and trees) are changing because of changing environment and changing ideas of what forests should do.  There is undoubtedly scope to increase timber supply – but also a need to adapt they way we do this.

The vision for 2030 is mostly ICT led – which is probably correct.  ICT can help with planning, assessment, inventory, access to markets, and direction of timber to the best value markets for its properties (thereby increasing return for foresters and reducing downgrade costs to processors).  In truth, much of this is probably closer than 2030. Timber transport is covered, but perhaps not as well as it could be.  There is no list of research and innovation actions aside from completion of a modern database and economic assessment (which sounds like an evolution of what we are already doing and is more of an ongoing task than something that is completed).

2.1 Development of resource efficient processing, refining and converting technologies

This introduction of this section mentions pulp and paper, but not the many other wood products.  The research needs cover energy use in drying of sawn timber and panel production – but there is no mention of the use of resins, adhesives and treatments, or the earlier detection of quality issues that currently lead to waste down the line (at merchant or consumer).

There is no detail in the vision for 2050 – although it is hard to see how that would be different from the direction set by the 2030 list.

2.2 Valorisation of production residues

This is one area where the timber industry already does well – with hardly any waste of fibre coming into processors.  The roadmap remarks that there is potential to bring more residue (stumps and brash) out of the forest – but not that we have forests where the whole tree is effectively residue since there is no harvesting at all.  There is no mention that existing co-products can be raised in value.  Surprisingly there is no mention here of new materials from wood components (such as nanocellulose) or the potential for new value streams from extractives.  However, those things could perhaps be considered as being part of 4.2 (and indeed they are mentioned in some detail there).  Surprisingly, there is no list of required R&D actions specifically for the biotic sector (perhaps they think it already optimised). We think (at least):

A. Creation of value streams for forest residues such as stumps and brash, and research to inform on when this material should and should not be removed from the forest.
B. Improved value add for coproducts from processing, including new products from wood fibre, basic wood chemicals and extractives components (especially for bark, branches and knots).
C. Improved ultilisation of small roundwood, minor conifers and hardwoods from under-managed forests and forest operations not currently linked to timber production.

3.1 Increasing collection through efficient sorting, separation and detection

This is undoubtedly the area with the largest potential since a huge proportion of wood waste is post-consumer, and from renovation and demolition.  That which is reclaimed tends to go straight to lower value / final uses – such as bioenergy – in no small part due to the technological challenges for waste sorting – particularly detection of preservative and fire treatment chemicals and other contaminants.  Extended life span is mentioned in the introduction to section 3, but it doesn’t really fit into 3.1, 3.2 or 3.3 (there is some mention in 4.3 but this doesn’t cover basic, but very important, single material products).  This is also a current challenge for wood, since preservative treatments are being banned for environmental reasons, and the remaining options are less effective than we would like.  Obviously there is a conflict here between treatment to extend lifespan and suitability for recycling – and it is worth noting that the is also the problem of treatments being required when they might not actually be necessary.  With the growth of wood modification, treatments, composite construction,  and products where wood is combined with glues, resins and plastics there is also a risk that we create more problems for the circular economy over time – so this area of research and innovation should also cover design and product manufacture more suitable for reuse and recycling.  The roadmap does cover this last point “From the very outset of the product design phase, innovations need to address both recycling and extended life-span of materials for abiotic and biotic raw materials. ” – although it doesn’t cover (in this introduction) repair, renovation, and reuse possibilities even though this is something with high potential for both abiotic and biotic construction materials (but does cover in 3.2).

In the expected achievements by 2050 the roadmap remarks on the “EU’s independence from the external supplies of raw materials.” which is an ambitious goal considering the volumes of wood consumed (especially when including bioenergy). Natural rubber was mentioned previously as something that Europe depends on imports for – to a lesser degree there is also an import dependence on tropical timbers that have certain technical performance (durability or strength) that cannot be matched by temperature species.

This section has a long list of research and innovation activities, which needs to be reduced (according to the notes in the document) – but if anything, there is more that could be done for wood-based materials.  Perhaps the solution is a better summary and less specific detail.

3.2 Recycling technologies adapted to complex, durable, miniaturised and material efficient products

This section is less relevant to wood than to other materials – although it is mentioned (in slightly strange places).  This section also covers reuseability of construction materials.  The title of the section is therefore a little misleading.  This list includes “Improve the reusability and recyclability of wood composites” but we think this should be engineered wood products generally – including also modified wood.

Interestingly, given the current trend for massive wood construction there is mention of “new production technologies to obtain more functionality from less material and energy input, e.g. lightweight wood construction” (which is, of course, already very advanced since many years…especially in Scotland…although we also think there is more to do).

3.3 Developing and integrating methods for assessing and optimising cost and benefit in recycling

This section rightly points out that we cannot always assume that recycling operations are categorically safe, environmentally friendly or socially responsible options – equally we should also take care that optimising some step of the process (with good intentions) does not make the overall situation worse.  For example, it can make sense to be less efficient with material and process at an early stage, if it makes reuse easier at end of life.  Of course part of the problem here is that the extra cost spent at one stage may not be realised by the same party later on – so there is a need for economic and policy R&I to go hand-in-hand with technical R&I. Timber is an interesting one here because (depending on how you count it – and who gets to claim it) carbon locked into a material during its life means material usage is on a quite different balance from abiotic materials.  This is recognised in “Develop assessment tools and monitoring systems for international production and trade flows including storage and CO2 sequestration in forest-based raw materials and wood-based products.”

We are also pleased to see “Develop, test and implement assessment methodologies and indicator sets that include parameters such as criticality and circularity of materials, enabling for replacing weight-based targets of material recycling by whole-product and EOL performance targets that account for economic, social and environmental criteria.”

4.1 Substitution of critical raw materials

The European Commission maintains a list of “critical raw materials” (CRM) which includes natural rubber (100% import rate, and 1% recycling rate).

4.2 Development of new biobased products

This is, of course, where forest products shine.  There is a good list of R&I actions for 2030 – but none for 2050 (again, difficult to say how these two time-frames differ in this context).

It sets a laudable (but ambitious) target for 2050: “Wood-based construction materials have helped the sector achieve an 80 % CO2 emission reduction by providing a carbon storage while replacing other energy and carbon-intensive construction materials”

4.3 Raw materials for hybrid and composite materials and applications

This section includes a research aim for something we think we already do very well (at least in Scotland) but we also agree there is more to do …so we are pleased to see it: “Develop cost-effective integrated prefabricated building systems including hybrid and composite materials, timber and other biobased construction materials.”  The potential conflict between the increase in use of composites and the ease of material separation at end of life is not explicitly mentioned in the text, but it is covered in one of the R&I points (at least for construction products): “Develop construction products that can be dismantled and modularised considering also the reversibility of the manufacture, in order to collect raw materials during maintenance or product end-of-life without (or with small) further chemical/physical/mechanical operations”.

Again, there is a good list of R&I actions for 2030 – but none for 2050 (but also difficult to say how these two time-frames differ in this context).

We strongly encourage you to read and comment on this roadmap – especially if you think something is missing.




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