This research theme focuses on research activities based on the circular economy and resource efficiency, ranging from:

  • reducing, reusing and recycling materials

  • remanufacture, repair and refurbish

  • development of green technologies and processes

  • recovery of valuable materials from wastes and urban ores. 

Our activities and projects utilise the Factory of the Future, the Energy Transformation Laboratory, the Thermodynamics Laboratory and the Robert Simpson High Temperature Laboratory facilities

Research focus 1: Metals and materials

Recycling of alkaline and Li-ion batteries

In partnership with Sustainability Victoria and Envirostream Australia, our research is focused on the fundamental research and process development for the recovery of high purity zinc and zinc oxide from alkaline batteries. The process involves a fuming and carbothermic reduction of processed alkaline batteries using carbon sourced from processed Li-ion batteries. Systematic experimental investigations on process parameters, thermodynamic (mass and energy balance) and techno-economic analysis support the development of the pilot process to be retrofitted to an existing plant. 

The project has helped Envirostream Australia process their end-of-life alkaline batteries by showing that treatment of the battery waste under optimum conditions, followed by secondary processes, could allow for recovery of 95% of high-value materials and be economically viable. 

Read more about this study in our media release. 

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In partnership with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, our research is developing a comprehensive approach to recycling and recovery of all valuable elements from end-of-life electric vehicle Li-ion batteries. Based on a hybrid of mechanical pre-processing and metallurgical processes, the optimised process path will be developed with rigorous thermodynamic, techno-economic and environmental impact evaluations.

The current focus of recovering and recycling valuable elements from Li-ion batteries is centred on cobalt, nickel and lithium, but there are also valuable metals such as aluminium and copper that can be recovered. It’s important to develop a process strategy and processing routes that can allow for recovery of all the valuable metals from these resources, not just select elements.

In partnership with the Metal Industries Development Center (Ministry of Industry of Republic Indonesia) and LIPI-BPTM (Indonesian Institute of Sciences — Mineral Technology Research Unit), we're investigating the feasibility of developing automated mobile recycling and valuable metal recovery facilities for urban ores such as waste printed circuit boards, end-of-life cell phones, permanent magnets and batteries. 

The overall aim of the project is to fit these facilities in containers that can be mounted on a train or ship and pick up urban ores in an automated way. The urban ores would be processed onsite or during transportation to different processing facilities.

Our project is focused on investigating two main aspects: 

  • to develop and assess the detailed compact design of the facilities 

  • to assess the market and demand for these facilities, including the needs and characteristics of prospective users of the mobile recycling technology — this will inform the design and development of the facility and associated business model.

In partnership with CSIRO Minerals and the University of Wollongong, we’re investigating the thermodynamic behaviour of valuable elements during the copper smelting process, as there is currently limited knowledge. 

During the industrial processing of e-waste, the pyrometallurgy process is used to recover valuable elements such as gold, silver, palladium, platinum, germanium, tellurium, tantalum, neodymium and dysprosium and segregate them to suitable liquid metal solvents (such as copper) for further extraction as pure elements. We’re particularly focused on the distribution ratio of the elements between phases (copper, slag and gas phase). This behaviour is linked with the structure of the slag in order to develop practical correlations that can be used for optimisation of the industrial process. 

In partnership with CSIRO Minerals, we’re developing a process to recover neodymium from end-of-life neodymium iron boron magnets in the form of the magnetoelectric (ME) material neodymium iron ozone (NdFeO3). 

There is growing interest in ME multiferroic materials where application of an electric current can reverse magnetisation, a process that has a potential application in data storage. By using selective high temperature oxidation, it has been shown that NdFeO3 can form as a distinct phase. Our research is focused on developing a process, using concentrated solar energy, for carrying out this oxidation followed by a physical separation process using a combination of density and magnetic separations. 

In partnership with InfraBuild (Liberty GFG), we’re demonstrating that monitoring minor elements in steel scrap can provide a basis for understanding how the scrap supply chain is changing. Elements such as antimony and tungsten can provide precise information about the scrap source. This approach can be extended to provide more detailed control of different grates of steel, linking this control to in situ measurement of scrap chemistry.

Research focus 2: Plastics and carbon fibres

Recycling carbon fibre composite waste: establish the business model for the facility

In collaboration with CSIRO Advanced Fibre, we’re establishing a manufacturing facility to produce Carbon Fibre Composites (CFCs). This presents an opportunity to examine the economics of CFC waste recycling and explore new applications for this recycled material. Our research aims to develop a process that will establish a digital thread for ‘components’ or ‘parts’ throughout their lifecycle and identify the most suitable route to reuse the recovered material. As a result, we will establish the business model for collecting and selling carbon fibre waste. 

More projects

In partnership with Polytrade Recycling, this project is focused on creating better usage of plastic wastes, glass fines, tyres, slag and other inorganic wastes that could potentially enable the commercial uptake of fabricating “green” bricks or pavers out of this waste.

In partnership with Polytrade Recycling, we’re investigating how to use end-of-life plastics and recycled crushed glass in new construction material for high-strength concrete. Our target is to meet the UN Sustainability Development Goals for the reuse and recycling of plastic and glass fines by incorporating them into a concrete application. 

Research focus 3: Medical devices and wastes

Medical devices recycling and remanufacturing

Recycling and remanufacturing implantable medical devices is hampered by the absence of collection infrastructure as well as the difficulties in establishing and maintaining the provenance of the device to meet regulatory requirements. There are many benefits associated with their re-use, including meeting patients’ needs at low healthcare costs and prolonging the use of a device to decrease its environmental footprint. There’s also potential economic value in recovering elements within these devices as the amount of gold found in a pacemaker is higher than in conventional electronic devices.

Our research systematically evaluates the current practices of collecting and processing implantable and other single-use medical devices in Victoria. We will also look at the possibility of engaging local medical device manufacturers in the remanufacturing process, to establish the market for recovered devices.

Research focus 4: Organic materials

Rice husks for the production of metallurgical silicon

In partnership with Upala Limited, we’re developing a route for producing high purity silica from rice husks that are suitable for including in the feed of a metallurgical silicon furnace. We have initially developed a thermodynamic analysis, laboratory scale experiments and a preliminary flowsheet and are now pursuing further experimental work and larger-scale testing to test the concept.

More projects

Our research is focused on creating better usage of coffee and tea wastes that could potentially enable the commercial uptake of fabricating “green” bricks or pavers out of this waste.

In partnership with Ixom we’re investigating the development of cost-effective and sustainable technology for per- or poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) remediation. PFAS have been identified as chemicals that have significant environmental and human health risk. This project aims to validate the removal capacity and efficiency of Ixom's commercial resin products for typical PFAS found in Australian water sources. Our project also investigates possible regeneration methods for the ongoing reuse of their resin.

In partnership with GO Resources, we’re developing chemical procedures that can extract valuable components such a vitamin E from vegetabale oil waste products. 

Deodoriser distillates are waste products obtained during the deodorisation process of vegetable oils within the edible oil processing industry. These distillates are a very cheap source of several health-beneficial components (such as tocopherols, sterols, squalene and free fatty acids) that have numerous industrial applications. These valuable components are currently being used in different foods, pharmaceutical formulations and cosmetics, but global need for these components has now exceeded their availability. As deodoriser distillates are a rich source of these components, our research is focused on developing chemical processes for extraction. 

Cellulose is the most readily abundant biopolymer in the world, commonly found in plants as part of the cell wall. Cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) are the crystalline regions of cellulose fibres that have been extracted. These nanocrystals have gained interest due to their excellent mechanical properties, such as high tensile strength and stiffness. 

Our project is focused on the development of chemical procedures to extract CNC from biomass wastes such as wood pulps. We’re also developing different strategies to modify and functionalise the CNC to enable its application in various fields, such as a nano-filler for polymer composites. 

Our research is working towards the development of a new processing strategy to enable the transformation of biomass waste byproducts (such as from food, paper and wood) into high-value-added materials and commercially useful compounds (such as porous carbon particles, carbon quantum dots and other functional materials). We have successfully extracted collagen from chicken feet and further demonstrated the production of collagen-derived porous carbon fibres for functional application. Our ultimate aim is to develop a cost-effective and scalable methodology for treating bio-waste byproducts that would enable their rapid and simple manufacture.

Our research is investigating a new approach to developing novel biodegradable and sustainable plastic materials with outstanding properties, using natural resources. Non-degradable plastics and their existing anti-natural processing methods have become a threat to our planet and are exhausting a limited petroleum resource. The significance of this project lies in the use of environmentally friendly processing techniques for the development of new multicomponent materials from completely renewable resources. 

Materials we’re investigating include wool and wood offcuts as well as biomass from the paper and pulp industries, sugar industries and winery/juice industries. These materials are abundant, renewable, and would benefit from a broader range of processing and application options. Australia is the leading producer of wool, which is the chief natural polymer used. Cellulose accounts for 50% of plant biomass and new cellulose blends could have many applications in the fibre, paper, membrane, automotive and aerospace, coatings and paints industries.

We’re investigating the development of advanced materials from coal through energy efficient and clean processes. Australia has one of the largest brown coal reserves with an estimated 430 billion tonnes (lignite). Although coal has typically been used as fuel, it is also a resource for producing gases, liquids and other chemicals. The non-fuel application of brown coal is likely to increase with new processing technologies where high-value products can be developed at lower costs. 

The structure and composition of coal is suitable for producing a wide range of materials, including but not limited to carbon fibre, graphene and its derivatives, carbon dots, mesophase pitch, activated carbon, and artificial diamond. These materials can be used for the manufacturing of lightweight structures for mass transport, energy storage and conversion devices, and selective adoption systems for purification and emission control. 

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