Anna Furberg, PhD student at Chalmers, the Department of Technology management and Economics, applies a wider systems perspective to assess the environmental impact of hard materials. Now, she presents her licentiate thesis "Environmental, resource and health impacts of hard materials".
Tell us about your research!
Hard materials, especially cemented tungsten carbide with cobalt (WC-Co), have had a critical role in enabling the economic growth during the latest century. This material is important for the manufacturing and mining industry, for example for cutting and drilling. At the same time, WC-Co consists of scarce metals. Both tungsten and cobalt have been included on the European Union’s list of critical raw materials. Environmental impacts have been studied for Chinese production but not outside China, where a large share of WC-Co is produced globally.
Furthermore, both tungsten and cobalt have been associated with the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where minerals are extracted and finance the ongoing conflict. The global production is dominated by the DRC, where artisanal mining prevails under harsh conditions for the miners. The aim of my research is to assess environmental, resource and health impacts of hard materials by applying a wider systems perspective. WC-Co is applied as a case study as this material has such a great importance for the manufacturing industry of today.
Why is this important?
My research is important as it contributes to knowledge about a material that is important for the manufacturing industry and has an economic importance that is difficult to question but which environmental, resource and human health impacts have so far not been assessed from a systems perspective.
What are your most important research findings?
An important conclusion from my research is that the dominating hard material of today being WC-Co is associated with both environmental and resource impacts as well as impacts on human health. This lead to the question whether there are alternatives to WC-Co that perform better from these perspectives.
What new perspectives do you bring forward in your research?
My research presents inventory data for assessing environmental impacts of WC-Co production outside China and assess resource impacts as well as human health impacts from WC-Co in a case study on tire studs, which constitutes WC-Co. This has not been done before.
What do you hope for your research to lead to?
I hope that the research results will be used to compare hard materials from a wider systems perspective to identify what materials that perform the best from an environmental, resource and health impacts perspective while maintaining the same function of the material.
What will be the next step in your research?
The next step will be to investigate possible alternatives to the hard materials used today and whether they can replace WC-Co in order to reduce environmental, resource and health impacts. The use of a wider systems perspective will continue to be important in this work in order to avoid alternatives where problems are shifted from e.g. resource impacts to environmental impacts.
Text: Ulrika Ernström
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