“The circular economy of low-carbon energy is a matter of sovereignty and a model of society”

The energy transition requires a drastic reduction in the consumption of fossil resources. But the development of low-carbon energies (nuclear, hydraulic, carbon-free hydrogen, solar, wind) leads to a growing demand for increasingly diverse raw materials, especially critical metals: silver, silicon or cadmium for solar energy, rare earths for wind energy, platinum and palladium for the production of hydrogen, lithium, cobalt and nickel for batteries.

The circular economy can play a major role here. And it is to address all dimensions of the circular economy applied to the energy transition that the CEA, through its Institute of Science and Technology for a Circular Low-Carbon Energies Economy (ISEC), the BRGM (Bureau Geological and Mining Research) , ADEME, the National Institute for the Circular Economy (INEC), the Occitanie Region and Montpellier Management organized the FEET: Circular Economy Forum of Low-Carbon Energies for Energy Transition.

LA TRIBUNE – You lead the Institute of Science and Technology for a Circular Low Carbon Energy Economy (ISEC) at the CEA Marcoule, in Gard. What is his calling?

Philippe PRENÉ, Director of the ISEC Institute – Founded in February 2020, ISEC brings together the CEA’s R&D activities on the circular economy of low-carbon energies. Our story is that of the nuclear fuel cycle, which dates back to the 1980s, when we were working on the circular economy before we talked about it… In this area, R&D focuses on the process of fuel reprocessing and the production of MOX, the recycled fuel used in power plants. We are also working on technologies for conditioning radioactive waste. We are now applying all this know-how, developed over the past forty years in the nuclear sector, to other low-carbon energies.

How does your action fit into the compelling challenges of the current energy transition?

As a research organization, the CEA has made energy transition one of the four pillars of its roadmap. The circular economy is an important lever to enable the transition to low-carbon societies and economies. Based on our experience in the nuclear industry, we look at how we can contribute to the energy transition, of which one of the challenges is the need for critical materials – one of the ways is the circular economy – and how we can contribute to structuring and adapting of industrial sectors. The manufacture of photovoltaic panels or wind turbines requires large quantities of critical materials. We are developing approaches to recover this waste equipment and recover the materials it contains. But we will have to support manufacturers in this development… These energy transition requirements will contribute to national reindustrialization. Today, for example, we recover metals, we send them back to Asia to make batteries that then come back to Europe. We want to put Europe and France back in the value chain. And the dimension of sovereignty, which appears mainly thanks to the conflict in Ukraine, serves this ambition

What are the most important scientific issues surrounding material needs in the energy transition?

Our challenge is to recover waste and set up industrial sectors while we can clearly see that manufacturers, even today, struggle to invest in these topics because they are low added value materials, which will have processing costs before being reintroduced into the circuit. This requires innovation in the process heads and means that manufacturers agree to look for materials that are sometimes less pure, but without impact on the end product. To make this innovation intelligent, our ambition at ISEC is to support them by integrating, for example, the analysis of the life cycle of materials.

Why the Circular Economy Forum of Low Carbon Energies for the Energy Transition (FEET) and why in Montpellier?

We chose Montpellier in the first place because ISEC is located in Marcoule, ie Occitanie. Logical, too, because the region is at the forefront of circular economy and energy transition. For example, we have Genvia in Béziers, with the need for a supply chain behind it to meet the need for materials that will need to be recycled. There may be less industry in the eastern part of Occitania, but we have universities, schools, a mining history… The circular economy is too often reduced to the concept of recycling. It is actually much more than that, a paradigm shift, a societal challenge that has become even more important in light of the climate crisis. There is an economic and social dimension to this FEET Forum. That is why we wanted to bring together all the components of the circular economy of low-carbon energy: human and social sciences, economists, industrialists, scientists, technologists, but also territories and civil society. Because the circular economy of low-carbon energy concerns us all, it is a matter of sovereignty and a model of society to which we all have to contribute. However, it will be very difficult to impose choices if society does not understand them. And we also need to prepare the areas, which are major players, and civil society for the fact that we will have to do without fossil fuels and that we will have to go through some form of re-industrialization of the areas, we will accept it. That also requires working on the skills we need for the new professions that the energy transition brings, and we see things changing. For example, the master’s degree in Management of Ecological Transition and the Circular Economy started at Montpellier Management two years ago and the first lesson will be published this year. It offers 25 places and receives 400 registrations! Young people are interested in these questions…

Are there industrialists present at FEET?

Yes of course. We underline a point of vigilance: just as we have witnessed green-washing, we must pay attention to the risk of “circular washing economy”… But we notice that more and more companies are working on CSR for their image, their reputation , and this is a pretty strong lever. In addition, the markets are now interested in non-financial indicators. And we feel the environmental and regulatory restrictions coming. Europe is looking at critical materials that we cannot do without imports and we will have to ensure ethics in collecting and refining these materials.

What happens during these two and a half days of FEET and what are you aiming for?

It is of course a matter of philosophizing about these subjects together, but it is first a matter of getting to know each other. The FEET is not a scientific and technical forum, nor a forum for human and social sciences, but a forum halfway between these two cultures, where all participants can exchange through workshops. We hope that this is the first forum in a series and that it will eventually lead to joint projects. In addition, we are now seeing many calls for scientific and technical projects that call on SHS by adding a societal dimension. Until now, we only approached the circular economy through the prism of the economy. The aim is to succeed in proposing solutions that integrate all dimensions of society. We are at the beginning of something.

The FEET has planned a challenge that will put nine entrepreneurial projects in competition (in front of a jury composed of representatives of large groups, territorial managers and the entrepreneurial support network of the Occitanie region). What is it about ?

One of the objectives of the CEA is to transfer technology and ISEC has a special unit. The purpose of the challenge is also to remind that the CEA has the skills to tell if the project is viable. These nine innovative projects may interest industrialists or business angels.