The Circular Economy is the Future for Taiwan Manufacturing

A plant utilizing High Efficiency Calcium Looping Technology (HECLOT). (Photo: ITRI)

Taiwan brings several important advantages to this relatively new field.  

In the traditional Linear Economy, raw materials are made into products using a “take, make, and dispose” approach – with any waste material thrown away after use. By contrast, the Circular Economy as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is restorative and regenerative by design, relying on system-wide innovation to redesign products and services to minimize unnecessary material waste and negative impacts to the environment.

In comparison with two other recent technology megatrends – Industry 4.0 and Artificial Intelligence – the Circular Economy is more of a mid- to long-term vision. Its full economic value is not yet fully defined due to difficulties in measuring the total impact on society and the environment. But unlike Industry 4.0 where Germany and Japan are indisputably recognized as the two country leaders, and Artificial Intelligence where the United States and China are in the lead, currently no country dominates the Circular Economy. Today only some European countries have developed advanced applications and sustainable business models in the Circular Economy, which indicates that there are still opportunities for countries or enterprises to invest now and aim for world leadership in the future.

Taiwan has many advantages that may enable it to become a leader in the Circular Economy. First, the Circular Economy often requires multiple industries to share recycled waste. Taiwan has many well-developed manufacturing industries located in clustered regions, including the oil refining, chemical, and steel industries. Second, many breakthroughs in technological innovations and cost management will still be needed for the Circular Economy to succeed. Taiwan’s industries are adept at integrating new developments into the manufacturing process, while at the same time rigorously pursuing cost management. For example, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world’s largest semiconductor foundry, can currently recycle every drop of its water by an average of 3.5 times, an impressive achievement by world standards.

Lastly, many Taiwanese manufacturing companies operate factories elsewhere, opening potential opportunities to spread viable Circular Economy solutions to overseas markets after they have been developed and proven at home. Besides the sales opportunities, companies developing Circular Economy solutions will find that it helps improve their manufacturing competitiveness.

The flagship city for Taiwan’s march into the Circular Economy will most likely be Kaohsiung. Following the gas pipeline explosion in 2016, Kaohsiung is preparing to relocate its petrochemical industry to a planned land-filled site near the harbor and to develop Circular Economy zones for high value-added manufacturing. Within this greenfield zone, waste heat and emissions from the chemical industry can be recaptured and used by other manufacturing industries. Water recycling, electricity generation, and conservation methods will be implemented using state-of-the-art technological innovations.

For Taiwan to lead the world in the Circular Economy, according to research by the Industrial

Economics and Knowledge Center (IEK) at the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), Taiwan’s largest applied technology research institute, a total of seven key reforms will be needed to carry out a paradigm shift to build new manufacturing ecosystems:

  • Re-Thinking: The Circular Economy will require adopting a new mindset – chiefly that the product lifecycle does not end with product usage, but extends into a recycle period for the calculation of complete lifecycle cost.
  • Re-Environmenting: The impact on the environment must be taken into account as part of the evaluation of potential benefits and costs. For example, the cost of a product should include the carbon emissions during the manufacturing and transportation processes.
  • Re-Servicing: New business models will be needed to provide services to new customers. For example, the sharing economy business model changes the own-by- user concept to one of pay per usage and service. The concept is applicable not only to transportation services and lodgings, but even household goods such as washing machines, air conditioners, lighting, etc.
  • Re-Innovating: New designs and technologies will provide innovative solutions for products and services. For example, new materials can be engineered to provide longer-lasting product lifecycles or easier recycling of product materials after usage.
  • Re-Manufacturing: Manufacturing processes and systems will have to be redesigned to reduce electricity usage, material consumption, or carbon emissions. For example, 3D printing can be used in manufacturing to reduce material waste.
  • Re-Cycling: Waste materials after product usage will need to be collected and re-used in new production. For example, recycled plastic bottles can be re-composed into materials for special sports jerseys.
  • Re-Generating: New methods will be called for to generate or conserve energy. For example, manure from pigs and other farm animals can be collected and processed into methane to generate electricity.

Since 2008, ITRI has been an annual recipient of R&D 100 Awards from R&D Magazine in the United States in recognition of its revolutionary innovation and commercialization achievements. Until now, ITRI has received a total of 36 such awards; 2017 was a record year with eight regular awards plus one special recognition award. Among these awards there have been three related to ITRI’s interdisciplinary integration efforts for the Circular Economy:

  • LCD Waste Recycling System (2017 R&D 100 Award and Special Recognition Award).

The problem: LCD panels for various displays like TV and mobile phones contain liquid crystal, indium, and other heavy metals that present a risk to people and the environment. An increasing number of countries have classified used LCD panels as hazardous waste. The current disposal methods of LCD panel such as burying, burning, and physical disposal have negative environmental impacts. Every year about 21,000 metric tons of used LCD panels are discarded around the globe.

Re-Cycling and Re-Innovating: ITRI has developed an LCD waste recycling system solution which can recover LCD panel materials for reuse. The system employs an innovative and recycling approach based on a six-step process of separation, extraction, purification, scrubbing, concentration, and transformation. The process separates the three main components of LCD panels – liquid crystal, indium, and glass – and recycles each component for new use.

ITRI’s carbon-negative bio-butanol production technolgy (ButyFix) uses cellulosic feedstock to produce biofuel with near-zero carbon emission. (Photo: ITRI)

The liquid crystal can be nearly 100% recovered to be reused in new LCD panels. The indium can be recovered up to 90% to help produce new thin films for electrodes used in display panels, solar cells, and other products. The glass can be recycled to produce green construction material or heavy-metal adsorption material. Currently, ITRI is collaborating with leading LCD panel manufacturers and e-waste recycling companies to build an LCD waste recycling pilot plant in Taiwan.

  • Carbon-negative Bio-butanol Production Technology (2013 R&D 100 Award).

The problem: The transportation sector currently accounts for over 20% of global CO2 emissions. Producing biofuel from cellulosic feedstock is regarded as the ultimate solution, but the current production method using microbe metabolism still causes one-third the amount of carbon emissions during the fermentation process. This production method also reduces biomass yield and increases the feedstock requirement and associated costs.

Re-Manufacturing and Re-Innovating: ITRI has developed the first carbon-negative bio-butanol production technology, ButyFix, which uses cellulosic feedstock to produce biofuel with near-zero carbon emission. This technology removes a small amount of CO2 from the atmosphere – producing what is called a negative greenhouse gas (GHG) emission – due to surplus energy from the lignin-rich biomass. The result is a bio-butanol with a GHG emission reduction three times more efficient than with corn ethanol, and with a carbon conversion rate 2.7 times that of the traditional process. In 2014, ITRI spun off a new startup company, Green Cellulosity Corp. (GCC), to commercialize this technology with greater production scale.

  • High Efficiency Calcium Looping Technology (2014 R&D 100 Award).

The problem: Coal-fired power plants are still the primary choice for developing countries for electricity generation because of the direct cost advantage. In response to the growing global concern over CO2 emissions, Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is the only available solution to reverse the CO2 emission trend by retrofitting existing power plants. However, most CCS technologies under development are either not efficient for retrofitting or not cost competitive.

Re-Innovating and Re-Environmenting: ITRI has developed the High Efficiency Calcium Looping Technology (HECLOT), an innovative technology for reducing carbon emissions from fossil power plants. This technology is the first affordable and energy-efficient solution to achieve a CO2 capture rate near 90%. A power plant using HECLOT reduces energy consumption, enabling coal-fired power generation to become clean electricity and saving more than 50% in costs compared to a regular fossil-fuel power plant.

ITRI has been working with a cement company in Taiwan to build a 20-hectare outdoor microalgae farm with expected annual reduction in carbon emissions of 4,800 metric tons, equivalent to gas emissions from about 1,000 passenger cars in one year. This farm will also produce high-priced chemical compounds, increasing the value-add for the manufacturing sector.

The contribution that the Circular Economy can make towards a better world for human beings and the surrounding ecosystems seems more certain than ever. Unlike Industry 4.0 and Artificial Intelligence, Taiwan has a good chance to transform its manufacturing industries to become a dominant leader in this field, and Kaohsiung City will be an important flagship for Taiwan to create greenfield zones over the next 10-20 years. As part of the global science and technology community, ITRI will also continue to innovate and create value to help shape the future Circular Economy.