Purdue University

Circular Economies

Convener: Abby Engelberth

Department: Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Traditionally, goods produced by our industrial system have a linear lifecycle. As a result, both industrial activities and society rely on the continuous extraction of finite natural resources with substantial amounts of waste discarded to landfills and incinerators. Concerns over this unsustainable linear production and consumption model have led to the development of the “circular economy” concept, which seeks to close the loop on material and product flows, this increasing the efficiency of resource use and reducing waste generation.

The circular economy concept aims to decouple economic growth from resource depletion and environmental degradation to achieve balance among environment, society, and economy. Transitioning to a circular economy requires fundamental changes in product design, process technologies, business models, government policy, and consumer behavior.

Many Purdue faculty are engaged in research related to the circular economy and this research cluster will leverages the existing knowledge and infrastructure and helps establish Purdue as a global leader in circular economy research. The team focuses on sustainable product development, value creation from overlooked material streams, cost effective and environmentally benign remanufacturing/recycling technologies, understanding consumer behavior and engineering behavior change, and developing policy support tools.


Conversion of Spent Railroad Ties and Utility Poles into Biochar

PI: Abby Engelberth (Purdue)

Investigators: Tim Filley (Purdue), Chad Jafvert (Purdue), Cliff Johnston (Purdue), Erika Foster (Purdue), Javier Gonzalez (USDA), Veera Boddu (USDA)

Industry Partners: Indiana Rail Road Co., CSX Transportation Inc., Stella-Jones Corp., Koppers Recovery Resources LLC

Under current disposal pathways for waste railroad ties and utility poles, about 65% are used for local energy recovery, 25% are used for landscape materials, and 6% go to landfills, according to a Railroad Tie Survey Report. There are, however, diminishing disposal and reuse options available to the industry because of environmental regulations related to the chemical preservatives in the wood, less costly alternatives for on-site power generation, and rising disposal costs. One potential solution being explored in this project is the conversion of spent ties and poles into biochar, a substance similar to charcoal that is created when woody biomass is burned using a low-oxygen process called pyrolysis.

Read more about the project here.