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Darling Solutions

As a member of its Advisory Committee, I paid a visit to UNU-FLORES. This is the institute of the United Nations University that is dedicated to the ‘Integrated Management of Material Fluxes and of Resources’ and whose mission, to summarise, is ‘the development of integrated and sustainable management strategies for the use of water, soil and waste resources’. This involves, in short, an integrated approach to the management of environmental resources, in which we ultimately aim to use, but no longer use up, valuable raw materials. This echoes the concept of a circular economy. The institute’s mission is therefore highly relevant and current, but it is not simple.

UNU-FLORES experienced a flying start at the end of 2012. It has collaborated closely with the Technical University of Dresden. Two ambitious entities, one old (TUD, 1828) and the other young (2012), but both of growing influence. All those involved are determined to make something of the Nexus and the Circular. We are convinced that eliminating the classical conceptual divisions that separate soil, water and energy, will help realise society’s sustainability commitments, namely: sustainable agriculture, sustainable water management and a sustainable energy supply. And if we want to achieve a number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, then this is the path to take.

Good news, then. But also food for thought.

In the West, we are still pretty entrenched behind these classical divisions when it comes to our infrastructure, which doesn’t always optimally support integrated sustainability objectives. Of course, simply disinvesting and advancing towards sustainability with other infrastructure is no small matter. This dilemma means that things can get drawn out.

At the same time, in developing countries, sustainability is also still having trouble getting off the ground, since thinking there also follows the classical divisions. Take, for example, the construction of costly underground infrastructure for the collection of wastewater. We know that such projects are often beyond the means of such countries. From a positive perspective, one could say that such conditions offer room for innovative greenfield projects, unconstrained by existing solutions.

The morning after having discussed all these matters with my colleagues, I came across an article in a newspaper. It contained extensive coverage of the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, at which a number of Nobel laureates hold discussions with (primarily) young scientists. Chemistry was the subject of the meetings last June, and our brand-new Nobel Laureate, Bernard Feringa, was naturally a prominent presence. The newspaper article also reported the answers given by several scientists, young and old, to the questions: What are your current ‘darling molecules’? What compounds inspire you and why? Their answers: Water (hydrogen, as in the hydrogen economy); Cellulose (the most common natural polymer on the planet); and Ammonium (central role in agriculture and industry). In short, a green chemistry vision that has a lot in common with questions that we, in the water sector, are currently working on – for example, the hydrogen economy, or the reuse of ammonium in the Power-to-Protein project.

And when I think that next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Club of Rome by researchers… Their objective was to research the quantitative and qualitative interconnections between global problems (population growth, food production, industrialisation, depletion of natural resources, pollution). That’s not so different from what we now call sustainable or circular; it was actually a Nexus project Avant La Lettre. And many years later, we saw a significant conceptual deepening in the field of chemistry: the foundation of a green chemistry, a concept that incidentally has also been around for almost 30 years.

In the meantime, sitting back and waiting for sustainability is not an option. What I foresee is real Darling Solutions, solutions that will practically underpin a sustainable society. We are ready for them, both theoretically and practically.