Research profile of the Department of Anthropogenic Material Cycles


The topics "Earth. Resources. Materials. Renewables" of the Faculty of Georesources and Materials Engineering at RWTH Aachen University are all related to anthropogenic material cycles, which will have to be transferred to circular systems in the future. Our national system currently remains at a high level of resource use and waste generation. Globally, the demand for raw materials is still growing exponentially and the volume of waste is increasing.

In order to transform our current linear economic system into a sustainable industrial society, material flows that were previously declared as waste must be recognized and made usable as raw materials. In a first step, the use of waste streams as raw material flows and in the further development the transformation of product systems into systems capable of being recycled are the core of a Circular Economy (CE) and represent the central orientation of the Department of Anthropogenic Material Cycles.

ANTS searches and analyses in research and teaching for solutions and methods to make anthropogenic material flows recyclable. Thus, we aim in developing a raw material management on product and material level as well as demonstrating and implementing it by means of practical examples. With its previous expertise, the department is one of the leading research institutions in Europe in the field of mechanical and sensor-based processing technology. The ANTS combines the modelling and evaluation of processing and recycling processes with a view to entire product systems and life cycles in the sense of a circular economy and complements this expertise by technical implementation and demonstration.

Starting point of our research are anthropogenic material systems. By this, we mean raw materials and materials, which man has already taken from nature and which are in use (in the technosphere). These are mostly material or material mixtures that contain a potential for valuable materials and are usually considered "waste". We have many years of experience in sampling and analysis of various material flows at different positions in the process chains and especially in mechanical processing. When investigating and assessing material systems, the genesis of the material mixtures and their influence on the subsequent technical process chain are taken into account.

For implementation, the department has an extensively equipped technical laboratorium for the most important basic mechanical operations in process engineering. Experimental setups on laboratory scale up to pilot plants allow for application-oriented research and development. The broad wealth of experience of a team of employees trained in engineering science and according to practical aspects is an essential prerequisite for the successful implementation of innovative research projects on a national and European level.

The research at ANTS comprises three main research areas:

1) Pre-processing and sorting

2) Modelling and evaluation

3) Circular raw material management


Pre-processing & Sorting

Pictogram Pre-processing & Sorting © RWTH

Optimization potentials of preconditioning and recycling processes are investigated and further developed. Process chains are examined in detail both as a whole and in their individual process steps. A special focus is placed on the possibilities offered by sensor-based sorting and process control. With connected real-time-capable measuring systems for inline characterization of material flows, evaluation possibilities are integrated into process control.

Our strengths are:

  • Access to extensive technical equipment for test campaigns: technical laboratory, analytical laoratory, measuring stands for sensor-based sorting
  • Overall assessment of processing technology issues
  • Analysis of process chains of mechanical and sensor-optical preparation
  • In-depth understanding of complex mechanical and biological processes
  • Control of separation processes based on relevant parameters such as volume or qualitative composition per time unit

Modelling & evaluation

Pictogram Modelling & evaluation © RWTH

Material cycles are considered and evaluated on process and product level in a holistic context with regard to the entire value chain of product systems. Potentials for an optimized life cycle management are analyzed and mapped in models and scenarios. A special focus is placed on ecological evaluation, in addition to quality and economic considerations.

Empirically collected data are combined with process data from commercial databases or literature values and transferred into mathematical models. As a unique selling point, an in-house database will be developed based on existing data sets and new data to be generated.

Essentially, the methodology of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) will be used and further developed as well as indicators necessary for measuring circularity. Depending on the research question, other methods will also be used.

Our strengths are:

  • Technical-economic analyses: material flow analyses, feasibility studies
  • Efficiency evaluation of recycling processes: Energy, Resources, Economy
  • Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of processes and product systems
  • Analysis of optimization potentials
  • Combination of ecological & economic indicators with inline process control
  • Use of the institute's own, application-oriented database

Circular raw materials management

Pictogram Circular raw materials management © RWTH

In accordance with the objectives of a "circular economy", necessary changes for the development of the existing recycling economy towards a circular raw materials economy are being examined. For this purpose, the roles of all actors along the value chain have to be taken into account, so that holistic and integrated recovery and recycling systems can be developed and tested. Up to now, there has been a strong separation of product development and use and the end-of-life processes. The aim of this research focus is to overcome this separation and to think about the end-of-life from the beginning.

Our strengths are: 

  • Holistic analysis of product systems and their embedding in the economic environment
  • Linking technical, ecological and economic aspects
  • Analysis of the genesis of material flows
  • Integration of actors and information transfer via the institute's own database (currently under construction)
  • In-depth knowledge of the structures in waste and recycling management as well as the associated manufacturing industry
  • Close cooperation with all actors along the value chain