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Communicating the sustainability crisis: ACerS members help lead the charge for action with new paper, alliance

The transition to a more sustainable society faces challenges due in part to the definition that governments use for this concept.

The most used definition of sustainability comes from a 1987 report by the Brundtland Commission, which was established by the United Nations in 1983 and named after the first chairperson, Gro Harlem Brundtland. The report states that sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The report further states that sustainable development is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather “a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with future as well as present needs.”

This second part of the definition, however, is much less frequently quoted because “it contains a holistic behavior change, which turned out to be less consensual in the political arena,” three authors write in a recent open-access paper.

The authors are ACerS Fellows Jürgen Rödel and Dragan Damjanovic at the Technical University of Darmstadt, along with their colleague Alexander Frisch. In their paper, which published in October 2023, they expand on the initial entreaty that Rödel made in a September 2022 BulletinLetter to the editor” to urge scientists to help publicly communicate the sustainability crisis.

International Alliance of Societies for a Sustainable Future

The newly established International Alliance of Societies for a Sustainable Future aims to recognize, communicate, and actively work to counter the sustainability crisis.
Credit: SFS Alliance

In addition to calling on individual scientists, the authors describe the important role of international scientific networks in communicating this crisis. As they explain, “the sustainability crisis consists of several parallel problems and is therefore systemic and integrative in nature,” and so “changes in one aspect may affect another field.”

Encouragingly, the authors note a recent contribution by materials scientists to the arena of international networks. Specifically, the newly established International Alliance of Societies for a Sustainable Future (SFS Alliance).

The SFS Alliance, which was established in fall 2023, is a joint committee of the German Ceramic Society, The American Ceramic Society, the European Ceramic Society, and the German Materials Society. The alliance aims to

• Raise awareness of the global sustainability crisis,

• Promote understanding and application of sustainable practices, and

• Provide a platform to share knowledge and develop innovative ideas.

In addition to Rödel, who is chairperson of the SFS Alliance, ACerS past president Sanjay Mathur (2022–2023) helped initiate the formation of this alliance and serves on the founding Board.

People who are interested in getting involved with the SFS Alliance can email Rödel at

Green is not for granted: Commonly perceived sustainable practices do not always bring benefits

Just because certain manufacturing practices are generally considered beneficial, it is important to critically evaluate their potential effects before adoption to avoid unintended consequences, as demonstrated in a recent open-access paper.

The authors come from the Technical University of Darmstadt, and the study follows a “Letter to the editor” that the authors published in the September 2023 Bulletin on evidence-based sustainable development.

In the letter, the authors argued for conducting sustainability assessments during the early stages of product development to avoid difficult process modifications during later developmental stages when negative environmental impacts are identified.

Their new paper demonstrates the types of impacts that may be caught during early assessments. Specifically, they showed that microwave-sourced heating, which generally is believed to consume less energy than conventional heating sources, may actually consume more energy in certain cases.

This study’s specific case was the synthesis of LCNC, or (La0.9Ca0.1)2Ni0.75Cu0.25Ox, a promising oxygen transport membrane material. The authors previously published an open-access paper that identified factors impacting sustainability when producing LCNC through a Pechini-based sol-gel process. The new study focused on the factor of electricity consumption.

The authors compared the electricity consumption and environmental impacts from three production setups:

  • Original Pechini-based sol-gel process.
  • Reference process: same as original setup but with a reduction in calcination time (from 10 to 2 hours).
  • Modified process: same as reference setup, but the heating sources were changed from a hot plate (for gelation) and electric resistance heating furnace (for pre-calcination and calcination) to a microwave-heating sourced furnace.

While each setup resulted in the production of LCNC membranes with comparable functionalities, the reference process consumed 6 kWh less electricity than the original production setup. However, the modified process consumed more electricity than the reference process, by more than 65% for primary LCNC and more than 90% for secondary LCNC.

In an email, first author and TU Darmstadt graduate student Rishabh Kundu explains that the increased consumption in the microwave-sourced heating process appears to be due to energy losses in the furnace.

“The energy consumption of the furnace used for the study can be measured in two ways: through an energy meter plugged into the socket powering the furnace, or by mathematically integrating the power against time graph obtained through the software used to control the furnace,” he says.

He explains that the latter method does not account for any energy losses and simply states the magnetron power with respect to time. It also does not account for energy consumed by other nondetachable components, such as the ventilation system software controller. As such, if energy consumption is reported using this method, microwave-sourced heating appears more sustainable than the reference process.

However, the first method accounts for all kinds of energy losses, including from the magnetron, and energy consumed by all components because it records the actual energy consumption. Using this method resulted in the conclusion that the microwave-sourced heating process was less energy efficient for this specific case study.

So, “while methods for pursuing sustainable materials development are generally broadly applicable, this study reemphasizes the need for manufacturers to evaluate the impact that comes from using each method within their specific context,” Kundu says.

The open-access paper, published in Open Ceramics, is “All that seems green might be a smokescreen—a case study on microwave-integrated process development of oxygen transport membrane material.”

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