Ever increasing circles

By Dr. Alicia Martínez de Yuso, ZLC Project Manager and Dr. Beatriz Royo, ZLC Associate Professor.

Leer versión en español


It is generally accepted that, economically, environmentally and socially, our economies need to become much more ‘circular’. The concept is far from radical – the saying that ‘one company’s waste is another company’s raw material’ may be an oversimplification (circularity is about much more than just waste materials), but it is true nonetheless.

However, even or especially in the dense concentrations of industry that characterise the European economy, it has proved very difficult to establish circular economies that are self-sustaining at large scale. Many individual examples of Industrial symbioses have been demonstrated, but usually with just a handful of participants. Even where these pilots have been technically and economically successful they have often not been maintained, let alone expanded  – if just one or two participants disengage, perhaps because their business has changed, or just because the project ‘champion’ has moved on before the concept has become truly embedded, such initiatives have often ultimately failed.

A new and more ambitious approach is needed to creating large-scale circularities in terms of shared technology and infrastructure use, waste integration, and energy and material utilisation that are not just self-sustaining but will expand through their surrounding industrial, social and environmental ecosystems.

IS2H4C may not be immediately intiutive, but it is the title of a new, four-year, Horizon-funded project with the involvement of ZLC – a project which we believe may be one of the most important in the field we have been associated with in recent years.

‘Industrial Symbiosis to Hubs for Circularity’, to expand the acronym, will deploy ground-breaking research into business, social and governmental innovations that will support circularity ecosystems encompassing entire industrial regions, demonstrated in four hubs with very different characteristics.

At its core will be the creation of a digital collaboration platform that can use decision-support modules to manage resources, infrastructure and information-sharing across each Hub for Circularity (H4C). The approach will prioritise resource utilisation efficiency, maximal use of renewable energy (including elements of Hydrogen-based industrial economies), prevention of waste, and promoting symbiosis not only between industries, which may or may not be obviously related, but with the hubs’ urban or rural hinterlands through the reuse and recycling of unavoidable waste streams – solid, liquid, gas, or indeed waste energy from industrial processes.

The aim is not just to demonstrate technologies – indeed, many of these are already technically validated – but to link these to innovative business and where appropriate regulatory processes that help create functioning market places for circularity. It is ridiculous that firms spend good money to dispose of ‘wastes’ that ought to have value for another user. There are many reasons for this ‘market failure’ (complex logistics being but one), and a significant part of the task will be to gather data across all the technical, financial and other factors to create complete maps of the products and processes involved. From this can be developed the decision support tools that tend to optimise the totality of economic, environmental and social outcomes.

That may sound worthy but woolly: not so. IS2H4C has some solid and quantifiable targets: to reduce energy use, waste emissions, and carbon emissions by at least 10%, 20%, and 30% respectively.

The four demonstrator hubs have been chosen for their differing mixes of industries, both manufacturers and supporting services, and for the perception that a large number of companies and agencies will be willing participants.

In Germany, Industriepark Höchst near Frankfurt is home to some 90 companies in the pharmaceutical, chemical, biotechnology and services sectors and has an existing ProcessSustainability cluster aiming to achieve carbon neutrality for individual companies through a variety of technologies. IS2H4C will build on this infrastructure through approaches including feedstock production from captured CO2 and H2 from electrolysis; use of waste heat both for district heating and to augment heat pumps for higher temperature industrial use; hydrogen production from wastewater, and microwave-assisted hydrothermal carbonisation of biogenic wastes, again to produce hydrogen.

The Basque Industrial Hub for Circularity, in Northern Spain, building on the Basque Government’s 2050 industrial decarbonisation target, has already identified several potential symbioses between different sectors, as diverse as steel, cement, lime, oil refining, and pulp and paper. The project will look at the use of electrolytic O2 and/or H2 in steel production, and its potential in other industries; capturing CO2 for the lime, cement and oil industries; the use of steel slags in construction products; and the potential uses of biocoke and biogas derived from the pyrolysis of urban wastes. H2 based technologies will also be explored.

In Turkey, the Izmir-Manisa area is a port and industrial area with particular strengths in oil and gas, and in household appliance manufacture. Particular focus here will be on electrolytic H2 for e-methanol production (and possible pathways for the 02 which is the other product of electrolysis); also the use of captured CO2 as an input to the production od non-isocyanate polyurethane, an alternative to conventional polyurethane which is an important material in refrigerators.

Finally, the region around Twente, in the Netherlands, already styles itself a H2Hub, place where entrepreneurs, government organisations, researchers and knowledge institutions can collaborate on developing applications for hydrogen technology, and includes Almelo Energy, a ‘Positive Energy District’ which aims to eliminate natural gas use, promote local balancing (reducing inefficient long distance energy distribution), peak shaving and load shifting, and district-level self-consumption. IS2H4C will be looking at the use of the Oxygen created from H2 production in wastewater treatment and the use of such water to feed H2 production (an important circularity in a region prone to water scarcity). The crematorium will be moved from natural gas to hydrogen, while facilities to store wind-generated energy will support H2 production. Other aspects will include the potential to produce biogas from cattle manure to relace natural gas in a Combined Heat and Power plant, the recovery of waste heat from electrolysis for office space heating, and the distribution of Hydrogen to consumers and logistics companies by truck or through fuel stations.

The ambition of IS2H4C extends well beyond these four hubs. It is intended to train at least 350 students and 175 scientific assistants in the principals of Hubs for Circularity, and, beyond the 100+ companies engaged in these hubs, reach out to over 500 more through partnerships and sister projects, ultimately with the goal of stimulating 15 further H4C across Europe.


For more information contact [email protected]