CirculaTUM: circular economy as a model for the future

Projects, International, Study, Research |

The CirculaTUM research network is dedicated to a resource-efficient circular economy - a regenerative economic model in which material flows are transformed into cycles and waste no longer has a place. For the upcoming launch as a TUM Mission Network, initiator Niclas-Alexander Mauß explains what the Circular Economy means for research, teaching and transfer. The TUM School of Engineering and Design (ED), which has committed itself to the maxim of the circular economy and sustainability since its founding in October 2021, has a special role to play here.

Interview: Cornelia Freund

ED: What is CirculaTUM all about?

Niclas-Alexander Mauß: CirculaTUM is a university-wide research network that bundles knowledge and diverse competencies across the various disciplines and locations of TUM. It makes a scientific contribution to the transformation of the economy and society towards a circular economy, an industrial system in which we continue to use products but no longer consume the valuable resources in them. Since the Industrial Revolution, our prosperity has been based primarily on the extraction and processing of natural resources. Given the finite nature of these resources, CO2 emissions, biodiversity loss and other environmental impacts associated with resource extraction and processing, this cannot be a model for the future.

The Circular Economy provides a counter-design to the traditional, linear logic of "take, make, waste" - by closing material and product cycles, rethinking business models, and ultimately decoupling our economic development from the need for new natural resources as far as possible. This means much more than "recycling": it is about sustaining value creation as much as possible by maximising the lifetime of products, and repairing, refurbishing or remanufacturing them, which happens all long before material recycling.

The shift towards such a regenerative economy is enormously challenging. Within the framework of CirculaTUM, researchers from different disciplines at TUM and industrial partners are working on technological, business and social solutions in joint projects to realise this goal. At the same time, we are advancing systemic thinking in teaching and want to help activate the many entrepreneurial potentials associated with the Circular Economy.

What progress have we made towards such a circular economy?

It is both a blessing and a curse that Germany brought waste management forward in the 1980s and 1990s - keyword: the "yellow bag". However, the "circular economy" developed according to the understanding of the time should not distract us from the fact that only a small part of the national economies in Germany and all over the world are set up in a circular way and that the path to a true circular economy is still long, while the pressure to act is increasingly growing.

Climate protection and the preservation of biodiversity require our immediate action. For Europe in particular, it is not only about the ecological aspects. The transition to a resource-efficient circular economy is also highly relevant in economic, political and social terms. The current crises illustrate acutely our economic deficits and also our dependencies in times of volatile markets, fragile supply chains and increasing global tensions. What we are currently seeing with oil and gas will sooner or later also face us with raw materials, which we urgently need for digitalisation or the energy transition, providing an essential basis for practically the entire industry. Even if, unfortunately, there is no way around "virgin materials" for the time being: The Circular Economy can and must play a major role, also in order to maintain Europe's international competitiveness, security of supply and ultimately technological sovereignty.

The European Commission has recognised this and initiated the transition to a "clean and circular economy" with the European Green Deal of 2019. Although we still have to work hard on our awareness in many areas, I am convinced that we primarily do not have an awareness problem for the necessity of the Circular Economy, but rather an implementation problem. Therefore, science is especially needed to make its contribution to new approaches in research, teaching and implementation. Here, TUM wants to take on a pioneering role and be a knowledge partner for business and society. With excellent research, diverse know-how and a unique entrepreneurial spirit, the TUM ecosystem has all the necessary prerequisites.

So how did you personally first become aware of this topic?

Since I was 18 years old until present, I have worked in a medium-sized company parallel to my studies and now also my PhD. There, I experienced how this formerly quite conventional and linear company transformed itself step by step into what we now call the Circular Economy. It all started with the simple idea of taking back their own products or components at the end of their life cycle, dismantling and reprocessing them in order to recycle them in the best possible way. Initially, this was primarily intended to reduce material costs, remain competitive with low-cost (disposable) products and thus keep production at the site. However, this was so successful that the circularity of product design and "servitisation" of the company's own equipment was expanded over the years and led to a change in the entire business model.

Instead of the "race to the bottom" in terms of prices, wages and materials, the company succeeded in making a virtue out of necessity and "more than ever" relied on the quality and longevity of its own products - simply because this also pays off economically with successful circular management. This previous experience motivated me immensely: On the one hand, it became tangible how sustainable management can become a real location factor and how it can really "pay off" when ecology, economy and social issues flow together in a meaningful way. On the other hand, it was encouraging to see that a small medium-sized German company was able to experience such a groundbreaking development and is today a best practice case. What I experienced there on a small scale can certainly not be transferred indefinitely to every other company, but in many respects it is representative of the major transformation that our industry must succeed in. This in turn can be broken down into many individual entrepreneurial transformation processes. Understanding them is precisely what I have made the subject of my current PhD.

This means that the idea for CirculaTUM did not come about with your current chair position, but earlier?

That' s true. In the final phase of my studies, I really wanted to stay involved in the Circular Economy and was given the opportunity to write my master's thesis at what is now the TUM Entrepreneurial Masterclass. I focused on the university fields of action arising from the Circular Economy and derived concrete proposals for TUM. Thereupon, I condensed the master's thesis into a concept paper for founding CirculaTUM. Prof. Johannes Fottner supported the idea enormously from the beginning and coordinates the research network together with Prof. Magnus Fröhling, Professor for Circular Economy at the Straubing Campus. With the support of the TUM leadership, we were able to build up an internal university network in a short time, in which actors in the Circular Economy are linked across all disciplines and locations and joint research projects are developed. Of course, this thrives on the commitment of many people throughout TUM. Today, we have around 30 member institutes and over 90 individual members.

In the context of the Circular Economy, a distinction is often made between the technical cycle, the technosphere, and the biological cycle, the biosphere. Our aim must be to address both. For the latter, biotechnology, natural sciences, agriculture, forestry, etc. play a crucial role, while for engineering, the technosphere is of course particularly relevant. From the TUMs School of Engineering and Design point of view, I consider the cross-disciplinarily in CirculaTUM to be quite essential. Firstly, we can learn an incredible amount from other colleagues. And second, engineering has a key role to play in the transformation, as it plays a decisive role in shaping German industry. From product development to the design of production and logistics systems to return, dismantling, separation technology, remanufacturing or refurbishment and ultimately recycling: technological solutions are needed everywhere.

What is CirculaTUM's current status?

First and foremost, circularity needs to be anchored across the board within TUM. This has already been achieved in many ways and the Presidential Board is clearly committed to the Circular Economy as a strategic focus of the entire university, including the launch of the "TUM Mission Network", of which CirculaTUM is now a part. In the future, the "Mission Networks" are to provide a framework for transdisciplinary cooperation on major topics, ideally as a starting point for later Integrated Research Institutes or Clusters of Excellence.

Several of the interdisciplinary projects developed in CirculaTUM have received funding approval and have started this year. Combined, the funding amounts to several million euros. With formats such as the Circular Futures Festival, the Plastics Recycling Webinar with TUM Asia in Singapore, the Circular Economy Theme Day at the Munich Urban Colab, the Circular Slam or through participation in the EoE Special Issue on Circular Economy, we raise awareness of the topic. As a knowledge and implementation partner, we are involved through UnternehmerTUM in the nationwide BDI Circular Economy Initiative or as a partner of the Plastics Recycling Association Singapore. Through the new focus on "Sustainability and the Circular Economy" at the Mittelstand-Digital-Zentrum Augsburg, we contribute to the empowerment of SMEs for the Circular Economy.

What are the projects that emerged from the platform about?

We have defined three main areas of focus: industrial value creation, the built environment and natural cycles/bioeconomics. All of them combine cross-cutting topics, such as economic and social issues, process and procedure topics, material science challenges or digital technology solutions. In the first priority area "Industrial Value Creation", for example, we are working in two large consortia on the recycling of vehicles. In one case, this includes the design of reverse logistics processes, secondary material processing and the development of intelligent and automated disassembly technologies. Another project is developing an additive manufacturing process for the direct recycling of secondary steel granulate in a laser DED process. Researchers from the fml, the iwb, the Professorship of Circular Economy and the Chair of Materials Engineering of Additive Manufacturing are working together on these topics. Another example is an application hub for artificial intelligence in plastics recycling, in which fml colleagues optimise intralogistics in recycling plants. For the "built environment", Creating NEBourhoods Together  is an excellent example, in which a real laboratory for the transformation of built and social structures is being created in the Munich district of Neuperlach. The integrative concept takes into account sustainability and climate protection goals and spatial interactions.

Looking ahead, what will happen in the future?

The launch as the "TUM Mission Network" during Sustainability Day is an important milestone on the basis of which CirculaTUM can develop into an Integrative Research Center in the medium term, and ideally into a cluster of excellence in the long term. Much more important than the framework, however, is the real impact, namely becoming a global driver of circular economy, with discipline-shaping research and significant contributions to societal and industrial challenges. In concrete terms, this means: Firstly, cutting-edge research through transdisciplinary exchange across all schools. Secondly: far-reaching cooperation in large-scale projects with industry and society. Third: unique teaching profile and - in close cooperation with UnternehmerTUM and TUM Venture Labs - creation of a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem in which start-ups emerge that have a scalable impact on entire industries. As pleasing as many of the developments so far may be, we are only at the beginning. CirculaTUM forms the first Mission Network as a blueprint, hopefully many more will follow.

About the person

Niclas-Alexander Mauß has been a research assistant at theChair of Materials Handling, Material Flow, Logistics (fml) since 2020 and is in charge of their sustainability research group. Alongside his research work, as programme manager he set up the TUM Entrepreneurial Masterclass, a (pre-)incubation programme run by TUM and UnternehmerTUM, in which Master's students focus their final thesis on their own start-up project or the further development of the TUM and UnternehmerTUM entrepreneurial ecosystem. Previously, Mauß studied mechanical engineering and management at TUM as well as at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology (Haifa) and the École Polytechnique (Paris) while working in industrial medium-sized business. He gained further experience at a German commercial vehicle manufacturer, in an international management consultancy and in the TUM Presidential Staff.