Jaume Cabré | Engineering and Environmental Innovation Manager at Ferrovial Servicios
Ferrovial Servicios’ Engineering and Environmental Innovation Department has decades of experience and success stories in waste treatment and recovery thanks to its commitment to innovation, technological solutions and, in general, the circular economy. Currently, with CETIM they collaborate in Biomat Recover project for the selective biorecovery of critical raw materials present in electrical and electronic waste (WEEE). The objective is to increase the selectivity of the recovered elements, reduce costs and extend the value chain of the treatment of WEEE.
What are the challenges and trends for the coming years?
Environmental Engineering and Innovation Division supports Ferrovial Servicios’ business units in waste management and treatment to achieve company excellence in the design and operation of our treatment facilities. In this way, we can be present in all stages of the life cycle of environmental assets: from the original idea to the actual operation of the facilities, through design, project and offer preparation, construction and commissioning. March.
Specifically, from the Innovation Area, we promote initiatives and projects that allow us to respond to the needs of both our clients and society in general, advancing towards the increasingly demanding recovery objectives established by waste legislation.
This framework is the Circular Economy package approved in 2018 by the EU. This document establishes, among other objectives, that in 2025 we must achieve, at least, the recycling and preparation for the reuse of 55% of municipal waste, grow 5% every 5 years to 65% in 2035, and also reduce to 10% waste destined for landfill also by 2035.
For us as a company, these figures translate into an exciting challenge that completely transforms the current waste management model towards a model aligned with the circular economy that increases the recovery of materials and, therefore, reduces those that are going to dump.
It is, therefore, imperative to advance in new solutions that allow the reintroduction of these recovered materials in the economic cycle, either as secondary raw materials or as new products and, above all, to guarantee that they can compete in quality with the virgin materials that they replace.
Innovation is a key tool to advance towards this new model, achieve excellence and position ourselves as market leaders offering new technological solutions.
In this regard, what are your main lines of research and innovation?
For years we have been preparing ourselves for that future that is already present today. Five years ago, in 2015, we began to promote an ambitious strategic innovation plan that sought to place waste treatment within the framework of Industry 4.0. In short, we seek to transform our waste treatment plants into authentic factories for the production of secondary raw materials. Since then, it has been an intense journey with more than 50 projects and developments based on technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and deep learning, augmented and virtual reality, drones, data analytics and IoT (Internet of Things), among others.
Today, our innovation is based on two main strategic lines. A first that encourages automation, operational efficiency, health and safety and the improvement of working conditions; and the second through which we investigate viable solutions of circular economy. The objective is to attend to a portfolio of projects for the development of new solutions that allow us, worth the redundancy, to “close the circle”, transforming the waste into a resource with adequate quality so that it can be reintroduced into production processes and markets .
What research and innovative solutions are working at Ferrovial to meet the challenges?
We currently have a wide portfolio of projects, most developed in collaboration with external partners. Approximately 50% are technology centers, universities or startups. In addition, 40% of these projects have public funding through various national and European programs.
We work several strategic lines such as automation through projects with industrial robots, artificial intelligence for material identification and real-time monitoring, big data management, traceability using RFID systems, inspection drones or virtual reality.
The strategic line of circular economy requires us, on many occasions, to be disruptive and think “outside the box”, adopt and adapt technologies from other sectors, seek proximity solutions, ad hoc, test small-scale or waste technologies with composition multimaterial of difficult recycling. They must also be economically viable solutions that consider relevant aspects such as critical mass, the regulatory framework, which until now has not been too favorable, or competition with current discharge prices. To date, we have tackled more than 25 projects on multiple waste streams from diverse sources, generating more than 30 valid by-products or secondary raw materials to compete in quality and purity with virgin materials.
In our portfolio we have projects ranging from plastics recovery, especially for non-reusable residual fractions destined for landfill, which are transformed into urban furniture products or construction materials; The use of bio-waste for the generation of bitumens and asphalts or construction products or the regeneration of brines for industrial use are other of our lines of study.
With CETIM, they are collaborating on projects such as Biomat Recover for the selective biorecovery of critical raw materials present in electrical and electronic waste. What jump supposes with regard to the treatment that does today of the RAEEs?
Indeed, Ferrovial has collaborated with CETIM in several projects, among them the Biomat, which aims to recover critical raw materials (CRM) from the RAEEs. This is a project that we are developing from our electric and electronic waste treatment plant in Cerceda (A Coruña), where we currently manage 40,000 t / year of bulky and 8,000 t / year of WEEE of different types.
Currently, it is only possible to recover the components of the RAEES with hydrometallurgical processes that present high operating and energy costs, while low selectivity of the recovered elements.
By participating in a project such as Biomat, Ferrovial Servicios is committed to developing new small-scale technologies that open up new lines of business for us and allow us to expand our value chain in the treatment of this type of waste. Specifically in this project, we are focusing on the recovery of Cobalt (Co), tungsten (W), praseodymium (PR) and nickel (Ni) for its application in the synthesis of pigments, as well as precious metals for direct marketing.
Thanks to the reintroduction of these secondary raw materials in the production cycle, we contribute to the development of the global circular economy model, reducing the consumption of natural resources, increasing the recovery and recovery of waste,…
Collaboration with technology and knowledge centers, such as CETIM, represents an increase in Ferrovial’s innovation capabilities?
At Ferrovial Servicios we have been betting on open innovation for years. We are not a technology company, but we do apply a lot of technology in the provision of services. Our open innovation model is based on solving problems and seeking solutions to challenges by co-creating with our partner ecosystem. It is a broad ecosystem made up of technology centers, universities, startups, but also large corporations, public bodies, associations and technology providers.
These collaborations offer us the opportunity to directly access the research resources and equipment of technology centers and universities, which contributes to increasing our technological capacity, accelerating the innovation process and reducing the risks inherent in the development of innovative activity.
We consider Ferrovial Servicios to be a key actor in the transition towards a circular economy model and that is why we maintain collaborations with the different agents that are part of the circle. Likewise, we are permanently looking for external collaborators who provide the scientific knowledge and technology necessary for the development of projects.
This firm commitment to a model of co-creation has allowed us to tackle technological change in the way we provide our services, as well as a complete digital transformation of the company and, in this sense, it will continue to be a valid model to promote in the coming years.
To conclude the interview, and going back to the first question of upcoming trends, how do you see waste management and treatment plants in the next decade? What aspects do you think we will have improved most?
Waste management in the future will be determined by the paradigm shift that involves moving from the concept of treating waste to that of recovering materials. We cannot forget that waste is nothing more than disused materials; their condition is overtaken by the human need to get rid of them and not by a change in their nature.
What should the waste treatment plant of the future be like? The first thing we should change is its name for the material production plant. The second will be to design plants capable of breaking all the barriers or inconveniences of current plants.
I would highlight three fundamental aspects. The first, the plant of the future must be an intelligent plant in the sense that it must be able to adapt to changes in composition and quantity of the materials to be treated.
Secondly, it must be very safe, being necessary to control the operation remotely and avoid human contact with the waste. An example is stopping the production process when an access door opens to the premises where the waste is processed.
The last aspect is its comprehensive treatment capacity since it must be prepared to recover 100% of the materials present in the waste stream.
To fulfill these three aspects it is essential that it is, without a doubt, a fully connected plant. Both internally, for real-time control of the process, and externally, upstream and downstream of the plant itself. Above, you must know in advance the waste that will arrive and, below, you must know at all times the demand for materials on the market and their price.
Technologies such as digital twins or blockchain to gain predictive capacity and traceability in management, will also be decisive in the immediate future.
In our opinion, the three pillars on which to base the plant of the future will be to automate, sensorize and digitize. Adopting and adapting them to our plants as soon as possible is the recipe for success and necessarily involves incorporating technology that allows us to obtain data, data and more data on the basis of which to promote a new operational mindset that incorporates the principles of industry 4.0.
The challenge is as great as the opportunities and we must approach it from public-private collaboration as a shared effort. On the one hand, public administrations must invest to improve recovery rates. On the other hand, waste management companies and recyclers must contribute our know-how and management capacity. In their role, producers have to bet decisively on the use of recovered materials in their products and citizens have to separate at source, something essential, and demand greener products and services. It is therefore about overcoming the current vicious circle that damages the environment and creating a new virtuous circle.