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Research projects:
Cross cutting theme 1

Sustainable manufacturing of electrical machine components for the circular economy


Electrical machines are manufactured using mostly metals and their alloys, some of which are complex in their composition or manufacturing routes. Through the design, manufacture, and maintenance of these machines, very little consideration is given to an end of life processing method to ensure a sustainable product.

Unfortunately, many electrical machines are currently not reused or remanufactured, but end their life in a landfill. As the drive for electric transport and clean energy increases, a more sustainable life cycle for electrical machines will need to be developed. 

This grand challenge aims to discover, assess and implement alternative, more sustainable routes for the entire life cycle of the electrical machine components, and aim to loop the materials back into manufacture at the end of the component life, ie develop a circular economy approach. In order to do this, a full assessment of current supply chain and manufacturing methods will be required as a basis for comparison, as well as an understanding of current reuse and recycling capabilities within the UK supply chain. 

This grand challenge will subsequently look for modern, more sustainable manufacturing methods than those currently used, equivalent or better performing materials which better fit into a circular economy model, and the introduction of a life cycle model to reintroduce components and their materials back into the manufacturing chain. All these steps will aim to reduce or remove end of life disposal and waste.

Detailed diagram outlining the features of a circular economy.

Why it’s important

Currently, most electrical machines are manufactured using virgin material. This requires many metals to be mined from the earth, which is an intensive and damaging process to the local land area. It also is finite - these materials will become harder to find and extract, particularly in quantity, and subsequently will run out. 

To ensure the continuation of electrification, a route to recover end-of-life products and their materials is needed. The production of electrical machines will increase over the coming decades, and could prove to be environmentally damaging if steps are not taken to lessen their impact. 

As above, mining is an issue for the local ecosystem and surrounding region. However, the act of mining, the extraction of the desired elements from the mined ore, and the production of the component parts is also very energy intensive, polluting, and wasteful. 

With the increase in electrification, these issues will intensify and continue to have a negative impact on climate change. To further this, many countries have climate change policies or targets, which is helping drive the growth of electrification. However, with the production and disposal of these electrical machines being as they are, there is a risk that these products will not meet the targets set out by each government.

Current progress

For this grand challenge, key issues have been identified which will lead to advancements in the area of sustainable electrical machines. These include:

Most of the work undertaken on this topic within the FEMM hub to this point has been conducted by PhD student Leigh Paterson. As it stands, research has been conducted on:

Future plans

Beginning with a systematic review of the current life cycle of component parts, this project will conduct a literature study and consult with industrial partners to gain feedback and insight into current practices and solutions. This will enable a down-selection of key areas requiring change and innovation, most likely based on current negative environmental impact, scope for change, cost, and feasibility. 

The areas potentially discussed will include alternative manufacturing processes, end-of-life recapture of components and their materials, and supply chain alteration and implementation. Following on from the initial assessments, the project will begin to generate potential suppliers which will allow for the adapted supply chain. 

At the end of this process, the project will be in a position to make recommendations for implementing a sustainable manufacturing model for electrical machine components.

Staff involved