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Innovative materials: One of the drivers of Europe’s green transition

As the world struggles with the escalating challenges of climate change, the European Union stands at the forefront of sustainable development initiatives. The European Green Deal serves as a guiding framework, but it doesn't stand alone. Other policy commitments such as the Circular Economy Action Plan, the Farm to Fork Strategy, and the European Climate Law also set the stage for a more sustainable future in Europe. One of the cornerstones of this multi-faceted approach is the pivotal role played by innovative materials. This blog aims to explore the complexities of these innovative substances and their critical contribution to Europe’s green transition, all within the context of Horizon Europe's ambitious objectives.

Section 1: The state of Europe’s green transition

Europe has long been a global leader in the fight against climate change, setting ambitious targets to transition to a more sustainable, carbon-neutral society. The European Green Deal acts as a blueprint, aiming to make the EU's economy sustainable by turning climate and environmental challenges into opportunities.


Key policy frameworks:

Green_Deal
  • European Green Deal: Targets a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and aims for carbon neutrality by 2050.

  • Circular Economy Action Plan: Focuses on sustainable consumption and aims to ensure that the resources used are kept in the EU economy for as long as possible.

  • Farm to Fork Strategy: Aims to make food systems more sustainable, ensuring that the environmental and social footprint of food production is minimized.

  • Climate Law: Establishes the framework for achieving climate neutrality by 2050, including interim targets and measures.


Role of Horizon Europe:

Horizon Europe, with its budget of over €95.5 billion for 2021-2027, plays a crucial role in actualizing these policy commitments. One of its key focus areas is the development and promotion of innovative materials that can significantly contribute to sustainable development goals.

Understanding the vast policy landscape and the significant financial commitments through Horizon Europe, it becomes evident that innovative materials are not just scientific curiosities; they are essential tools for achieving Europe’s green transition.


Section 2: What are innovative materials?

In the realm of sustainability, the term "innovative materials" refers to a wide range of substances engineered to meet specific environmental or performance criteria. These materials are groundbreaking in their ability to address urgent challenges related to climate change, resource scarcity, and environmental degradation.

Types of innovative materials:

Biodegradable polymers:

Made from natural materials like corn starch or sugarcane, these polymers break down faster than conventional plastics, reducing landfill waste.

  • Bio-based materials: Examples include polylactic acid (PLA) derived from cornstarch, chitosan obtained from crustacean shells, and cellulose-based films. These are often compostable and serve as sustainable alternatives to traditional packaging materials.

Bio-based_Materials
  • Natural-based materials: Materials like beeswax wraps, natural fiber-based composites (such as jute, flax, or hemp), and even edible packaging made from seaweed or rice bran are gaining attention for their low environmental impact. These materials can be biodegradable or reusable, providing additional routes to sustainability.

Carbon-fiber composites:

Lightweight yet strong, these materials are increasingly used in transportation to reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

  • Lightweight strength: Carbon-fiber composites offer an impressive strength-to-weight ratio. They are increasingly being integrated into vehicle designs to reduce fuel consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon_Fibers
  • Industrial applications: Beyond transportation, these materials are making their way into aerospace, renewable energy technologies like wind turbine blades, and even sporting goods for their lightweight and high-strength properties.

Nanomaterials:

Materials engineered to exhibit novel properties. They are used in various applications, from water purification to energy storage.

  • Synthesis methods: Various methods exist for creating nanomaterials, including chemical vapor deposition, sol-gel synthesis, and ball milling. The chosen method often depends on the desired material properties and application. Nanomaterials display unique properties not seen in their bulk counterparts. Their small nanometric size grants them high surface area, leading to exceptional mechanical, electrical, and optical properties.

Nanomaterials

  • Versatile applications: These materials are incredibly versatile and can be used in a wide range of applications—from water purification technologies that address scarcity issues to advanced batteries that can store renewable energy more efficiently.

Smart materials:

These materials can change their properties in response to external stimuli like heat, light, or pressure, and have applications ranging from smart grids to adaptive building materials.

  • Responsive properties: Smart materials could change their properties in response to external stimuli such as heat, light, or pressure.

  • Conductive qualities: Some smart materials possess conductive properties, allowing them to change their electrical resistance or conductivity based on external conditions. This makes them invaluable in applications like sensors, actuators, and energy harvesting devices.

  • Cutting-edge applications: These materials are finding applications in multiple areas such as smart electrical grids that adapt to fluctuating energy demands, adaptive building materials that can regulate temperature, and even in medical devices that can deliver medication in response to physiological changes.

Why are they crucial for sustainability?

Innovative materials offer unparalleled advantages in terms of their functionality and environmental impact. For instance, biodegradable plastics can significantly reduce landfill waste, while carbon-fiber composites can revolutionize energy-efficient transportation. Smart materials can adapt to environmental conditions, optimizing energy consumption in real-time, thereby contributing to a more sustainable future.

When tied into Horizon Europe's funding initiatives, these materials become practical solutions to some of the world's most pressing environmental issues.

Section 3: Applications of innovative materials in sustainability

From the energy sector to waste management, innovative materials are revolutionizing traditional industries. Here are some key applications:

  • Energy storage: Advanced materials like graphene and solid-state electrolytes offer higher energy density and safety in batteries, enabling more efficient renewable energy storage.

  • Construction: Sustainable building materials such as hempcrete (bio-composite material made from the inner woody fibers of the hemp plant mixed with lime and water) and aerogels provide better insulation, reducing energy needs for heating and cooling.

  • Transportation: Lightweight materials like carbon-fiber composites make vehicles more fuel-efficient, cutting down emissions. While lightweight materials make vehicles more fuel-efficient and reduce emissions, it's important to acknowledge the significant pollution generated by the transportation sector. The most effective way to protect the environment is by minimizing the use of high-emission transportation modes like airplanes and cars, and opting for sustainable alternatives like electric vehicles, public transit, cycling, or walking when possible.

Packaging
  • Packaging: Innovative and sustainable materials like bio-based polymers, edible packaging, and water-soluble materials are redefining the packaging industry. These materials not only reduce the environmental impact but also offer functionalities like improved freshness retention and better consumer experience. Yet, even with these advances, it remains essential to focus on reducing packaging waste through innovative designs that encourage reusability and recyclability.

  • Waste management: Biodegradable materials and advanced recycling techniques are creating a pathway to a circular economy, significantly reducing landfill waste. While bio-based polymers offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastics in packaging, it's important to recognize that packaging itself contributes to waste. The ultimate goal should be to minimize the use of packaging materials overall, through strategies such as reusability, bulk purchasing, and waste-free supply chains.

Section 4: Case studies

Real-world applications can serve as robust testimonials. Horizon Europe has been instrumental in funding several pioneering projects:

GREENSENSE:

  • Sustainable, Wireless, Autonomous Nanocellulose-based Quantitative DoA Biosensing Platform.

  • GREENSENSE aimed to create an eco-friendly, nanocellulose-based biosensing system specifically designed for Drug-of-Abuse (DoA) detection. This integrated platform combined advanced printed electronic elements, such as a novel biosensor, NFC communication capabilities, an energy storage unit, and a user-friendly display, with a silicon microchip.

  • Ended in 2022.

  • Total cost: € 7 993 102,50

NANOSELECT:

  • Biobased nanomaterials aid water purification.

  • One of the most pressing issues of our time is the global water crisis. Innovative, cost-effective bio-based membranes for filtration and purification, funded by the European Union, offer the potential for greater access to clean water for underserved communities

  • Ended in 2016.

  • Total cost: € 5 064 913,64

MANDALA:

  • The transition of Multilayer/multipolymer packaging into more sustainable multilayer/single polymer products for the food and pharma sectors through the development of innovative functional adhesives

  • MANDALA aims to create innovative adhesives that offer both ease of separation and effective barrier characteristics. This was achieved through the inclusion of reversible covalent bonds and nanoparticles that absorb radiation. These elements will also create a complex pathway that improves the barrier qualities crucial for the end-user. Additionally, the project plans to formulate new polymer mixtures that incorporate a higher percentage of biobased and recycled materials in the film layers. By integrating these advancements into a multi-layered product, MANDALA established the foundation for next-generation packaging solutions for foods like meat and ready-to-eat meals, as well as pharmaceuticals such as pill blisters.

  • Ended 2023.

  • Total cost: € 4 573 892,52

Switch2save:

  • Lightweight switchable smart solutions for energy saving large windows and glass facades.

  • The Switch2save initiative, supported by EU funding, aims to introduce novel materials that cut down on energy consumption in structures featuring expansive glass surfaces. Their approach includes the use of transparent, energy-efficient materials with adjustable levels of total energy transmission (g-value), which regulate the inflow of solar radiation.

  • Ended in 2023.

  • Total costs: € 6 217 669,48

Section 5: Barriers and Challenges

Despite the promising advancements in the domain of innovative materials, several challenges hinder their widespread adoption. Here we break down some of these critical barriers:

Regulatory barriers

  • Environmental regulations aim to protect ecosystems and human health, but they can sometimes act as deterrents to innovation. Introducing a new material often requires exhaustive testing and compliance checks, which can slow down development and market entry.

  • Regulatory bodies may require new biodegradable materials to undergo years of testing to confirm they do not produce harmful breakdown products, thus delaying their commercial application.

Technological limitations

  • Scalability: While some innovative materials show great promise in lab settings, commercial production often presents a number of challenges, including maintaining quality and performance metrics.

  • Production costs: The use of rare or difficult-to-process materials can drive up costs, making the end product less competitive compared to traditional materials.

Industry standardization

  • Lack of universal standards: Innovative materials may face barriers in commercial adoption if they do not meet current industry standards. These standards may not be designed to accommodate the unique properties of new, innovative materials, thus limiting their use.

  • Interoperability: Without a standardized framework, integrating new materials into existing systems or processes can become complex and expensive. This can discourage industries from adopting otherwise beneficial materials.

Section 6: Horizon Europe’s role in promoting innovative materials

Horizon Europe has specific funding opportunities aimed at overcoming these challenges and promoting the development of innovative materials:

  • Open calls: Opportunities for SMEs, RTOs, and larger organizations to secure funding for materials innovation.

  • Collaborative projects: Encouraging interdisciplinary research to accelerate materials development.

  • Some examples of open topics for 2024 are shown in the following:

  1. HORIZON-CL4-2024-RESILIENCE-01-24: Development of safe and sustainable by design alternatives

  2. HORIZON-CL4-2024-RESILIENCE-01-35: Biodegradable polymers for sustainable packaging materials.

  3. HORIZON-CL4-2024-RESILIENCE-01-36: Advanced biomaterials for the Health Care.

  4. HORIZON-CL5-2024-D2-02-03: Size & weight reduction of cell and packaging of batteries system, integrating lightweight and functional materials, innovative thermal management and safe and sustainable by design approach.

  5. HORIZON-CL4-2024-DIGITAL-EMERGING-01-31: Pilot line(s) for 2D materials-based devices.

Section 7: How organizations can engage

For organizations looking to contribute, understanding Horizon Europe's calls and requirements is crucial:

  • Proposal writing: Writing a successful grant proposal is an art that demands an in-depth understanding of the funding landscape, technical prowess, and keen attention to detail. NETO Innovation brings a decade-long track record in crafting effective proposals that fulfill Horizon Europe's specific requirements. Our expertise spans various sectors, including innovative materials, energy-efficiency, healthcare, AI in industry, digital technologies, sensors, and printed electronics. This positions us exceptionally well to write compelling proposals for projects that align with Horizon Europe's focus on innovative materials.

  • Networking: Collaboration amplifies impact. This is where NETO Innovation's extensive network across SMEs, RTOs, and large organizations can add significant value.

Conclusion

Innovative materials are more than just a scientific curiosity; they are essential tools shaping Europe’s path toward a sustainable future. Horizon Europe provides a robust framework for bringing these materials from the lab to the real world, making the green transition not just an aspiration but an achievable reality.


Additional resources

In this section, we propose additional resources to explore in more detail the different facets of innovative materials, their disadvantages and the related challenges. From EU policies like the European Green Deal and Single-use Plastic Directive to cutting-edge research papers on topics such as biobased packaging and smart materials, this section serves as a comprehensive guide. Whether you're interested in policy-driven initiatives or the latest scientific insights, you'll find valuable resources here to deepen your understanding of innovative materials and their impact on society and the environment.


EU policies:

  • The European Green Deal: Climate change and environmental decline threaten both Europe and the global community. To address these pressing issues, the European Green Deal aims to evolve the EU into a contemporary, resource-smart, and competitive economic landscape. One of its primary goals is to achieve a balance of zero net greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.

  • Single use plastic directive:The objective of this directive is to mitigate the environmental effects of specific plastic items while advancing a shift toward a circular economy across the European Union (EU). This is achieved by implementing a set of customized strategies for the products under the scope of the directive. Specifically, it aims to prohibit the sale of single-use plastic (SUP) items for which eco-friendly and cost-effective alternatives exist.

  • EU Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP): One of the main building blocks of the EU Green Deal. The updated action plan outlines measures that cover the full product life cycle. It focuses on optimizing product design, fostering circular economic practices, promoting responsible consumption, and working to minimize waste. The plan also seeks to prolong the retention of resources within the EU economy for an extended period.

  • Plastic strategy: The plastics strategy is designed to safeguard the environment by diminishing marine debris, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and minimizing reliance on imported fossil fuels. It aims to facilitate more eco-friendly and safer patterns for both the production and consumption of plastics. Among the initiatives under this strategy are new regulations to enhance the recyclability of plastic packaging and boost the market for recycled plastic content. Additional measures include restrictions on microplastics in various products and efforts to mitigate the accidental dispersion of microplastics into the environment. The strategy also includes initiatives related to bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable plastics, among other elements.

Scientific and research papers:


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