NSF ‘two cities’ grant furthers Pitt’s circular economy reuse research


There are few more visible physical symbols of sustainability and green energy innovation than the wind-harnessing turbines that line rural mountaintops and open spaces.

But nothing manmade lasts forever, including the massive blades that spin atop the turbine poles when the wind gets moving. Where do those blades go when they lose strength, resiliency and practical usefulness?

“The blades are actually made of something called a thermoplastic, and the bonds in that thermoplastic are really strong, as they should be,” explained Melissa Bilec,

civil and environmental engineering professor and special assistant to the provost for sustainability. “But then, say you have to replace the blades after so many years, and those blades, then, would just go to landfill.

“If you were able to think about how the bonds were created and then make them reversed,” she continued, “then the constituents in the wind turbine blades could be maybe made into something else.”

A research project for which Bilec and Eric Beckman, professor in the Swanson School of Engineering, recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation considers how these and other resilient, landfill-clogging materials could be effectively — and perpetually — reused.

In mid-December, the two Pitt researchers and their University of Georgia colleagues Jenna Jambeck and Jason Locklin received an NSF grant of $749,997 for “A Tale of Two Cities: Optimizing Circularity from Molecules to the Built Environment.” The two cities of the grant title are Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

“We’re trying to really understand from the molecular level up to the building level, kind of how the circular economy can be applied across those multiple scales,” Bilec said of Pitt’s ongoing research in the field. “And I think that is truly a novelty, if you will, of the circular economy work that’s being done at Pitt in relationship to what’s happening throughout the rest of the U.S. and the world.”

The project’s abstract explains that, in contrast to linear models, the circular economy “decouples economic growth from resource consumption by meeting people’s needs without producing waste in the first place.” Circular economy principles, it says, are based on the “efficient use of resources and eliminating waste from product life cycles.” A truly circular economy, by design, keeps material in continuous use.

Bilec said the two-city project involves working on a circularity assessment protocol (CAP) and applying it in different sectors in of Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

The team will apply CAP to develop interconnected circular models for waste avoidance and material reuse across four categories: molecules, plastics, organic materials and the built environment, the abstract says: “By creating a path to circularity across multiple materials and scales in two large metropolitan areas in geographically disparate regions, their knowledge and improved practices can translate to other locations throughout the U.S., eventually scaling to other cities.”

Earlier in 2022, Bilec, who serves as co-director of Pitt’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, received a $98,000 grant from NSF to convene experts — from fields including chemistry, biology, engineering, business and behavioral science — to set the research agenda on circular economy design.

As part of Eric Beckman’s team that won a Pitt Momentum Funds scaling award, Bilec led a set of NSF growing convergence research proposals that were awarded $1.7 million. Bilec’s $1.6 million award for “Convergence Around the Circular Economy” was linked to one of NSF’s “10 Big Ideas.”

At a practical level, the circularity assessment protocol aims to make its data publicly available through the Debris Tracker open access tool. Developed by Jenna Jambeck, one of Bilec’s University of Georgia research colleagues, the tracker provides data points for more than 100 countries.

The CAP project targets sectors, companies and nonprofit organizations, including key local partners like Construction Junction, the Green Building Alliance and Covestro because of what Bilec calls their “strong perspective on not only the production of building materials, but the design of the buildings and then the associated waste when the buildings have come to their end of life.

“So we’re working with those organizations within this new award to then think about how they can utilize this tool and how it can be applied within the region,” she said.

Academic-based research on circular economy concepts has been robust at overseas institutions, but is quickly gaining ground in the U.S.

“Especially within the last two to three years, there’s been a great uptick at universities in the U.S. that have an interest in circular economy,” Bilec said. “In Europe and in Asia, the idea of circular economy has been much more prolific, but I would say we’re definitely on the uptick in the U.S.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at shannonw@pitt.edu.


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