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Straight Out Circular: Going Places with REMADE Institute Efforts

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

Compared to its sister Manufacturing USA organizations, just how unique is the REMADE Institute? Look at its ties to two pop-culture icons: the Air Jordan and the Michelin Man.

REMADE Institute CEO Nabil Nasr brings great passion to the group’s work to reduce the embodied energy and carbon emissions of materials production and processing in industry. (Provided by REMADE)

REMADE is sponsoring research on how to increase recycled rubber content in French tire maker Michelin Group’s products—promoted by its 137-year-old mascot, Bibendum, aka the Michelin Man. Also working on the research is Nike Inc., whose Air Jordan apparel and shoes were made famous by Michael Jordan. Other Manufacturing USA institutes are industry-specific, but REMADE has a diverse membership comprising companies as disparate as the tire and apparel makers.

The Michelin-Nike project is part of REMADE’s mission to enable early-stage applied research and development of technologies to reduce embodied energy and carbon emissions of materials production and processing in industry.

“For somebody like me with great passion for this work, it’s a fantastic opportunity to actually have the ability to deal with the problem from all its elements and in an integrated fashion,” said REMADE CEO Nabil Nasr. “And that’s, to my mind, how you can make a difference.”

All of those elements make the institute’s target a significant one.

Based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, industry is the third-largest contributor, at 23 percent, to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, after transportation and electricity, according to a REMADE press release. Factor in the electricity consumed by the industrial sector, however, and that percentage increases to 30 percent, making industry the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the nation.

REMADE’s job is to change that. Since its inception in 2017, the institute has funded 84 projects with a total combined value of $85.6 million.

Research partners Chris Williams, left, and Eric Cochran, both of Iowa State University, have developed a soy biopolymer to use with asphalt for more energy-efficient pavement. Their REMADE Institute-sponsored project uses recycled tire rubber, their polymer and a simple compounding technique to match the density of the ground-up tires to that of asphalt. The result is a better asphalt that is more elastic and resistant to cracking that’s also cost-effective and with improved storage stability.

Based on its funded research portfolio to date, REMADE has exceeded its five-year goals of embodied energy savings (at 122 percent) and emissions reduction (133 percent). In terms of reducing use of primary materials and increasing use of recycled materials, the institute made significant progress but missed its goal by 18 percentage points in both categories. Figures are derived using REMADE’s Project Impact Calculator, available on its website.

The focus on early-stage research, what founding CEO Nabil Nasr calls “knowledge gaps,” is another unique aspect of REMADE. Others in the Manufacturing USA network concentrate on late-stage research that’s headed for commercialization soon.

“This area has not had a lot of attention for years, but a lot of fragmented work,” he said. “So we’re really looking into making a difference—and the only way for us to meet our national goal is through innovation and solving those knowledge gaps. But we also have huge interest in commercialization and implementation of technology.”

In addition to companies like Michelin and Nike, REMADE’s membership includes academia, national laboratories and 31 trade associations.

Ford, Dow and Adidas just joined, Nasr said, and “we have Michelin, Unilever, Caterpillar, John Deere, Nike. We are so diverse in our sectors because we’re looking into materials that go into making products. It doesn’t matter what the product is. How do we recycle this material? How do we recover it? How do we remanufacture? What can be remanufactured?”

Research a Testbed for Clean Sheets

A $2 million REMADE-funded project led by the University of Michigan aims to answer Nasr’s questions in the vehicle industry.

The research is to develop design tools and best practices for recycling of aluminum and steel sheet metal from retired vehicles. Partnering with U-M in what’s known casually as “The Clean Sheet Project” is Ford Motor Company, rolled aluminum producer and recycler Novelis Inc., Argonne National Laboratory, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, The Aluminum Association and Light Metal Consultants LLC.

“We need to reduce the environmental impacts of vehicle production going forward, and one of the ways to do that is to boost the production of these lightweight sheet metals from recycled materials,” said Daniel Cooper, the U-M assistant professor of mechanical engineering who leads the project, in an article on the university’s website. “Not only will that reduce emissions from the automotive production process, it will also help to limit destructive mining for raw materials.”

Cooper and his co-investigators have a lot of work to do.

To date, recycled metal products aren’t high in quality because it’s almost impossible to obtain pure source material to melt down, according to the article. Aluminum door panels can have steel rivets that are hard to remove, and recycled steel can crack during manufacturing if it’s tainted with as little as 0.1 percent copper.

John Kreckel, director of education and workforce development at the REMADE Institute, said he’s helping build an “army” of workers ready for the new circular economy.

“We see tremendous opportunity for increased material reuse and recycling if vehicle designs include ease of disassembly, improved material separation and industrywide commonization,” said George Luckey Jr., manager of research and advanced engineering at Ford.

Recruiting a Circular-economy ‘Army’

Cooper, Luckey and other REMADE members need workers so the institute is helping to “build an army” of employees trained for the new circular economy in which materials are used and reused as long as possible.

Guided by a steering committee and labor and training gap analyses, John Kreckel, REMADE director of education and workforce development, devised a tiered certificate pathways program to train attendees to be “aware,” a “practitioner” or an “expert.” Other efforts for training and upskilling include outreach training, short courses and live events.

“I think as we grow the program it’ll be exciting as REMADE becomes recognized as the place where employers feel safe to send their employees from a training standpoint,” Kreckel said.

Not only safe, but necessary to meet REMADE’s goal of a circular economy.

“We’re developing new technology, and basically when you develop new technology you revolutionize some of the markets we’re in,” Nasr said. “Unless you focus on workforce development, it’s not going to go anywhere.”

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