Hartmut Pflaum on CIRCONOMY® Hubs

"CIRCONOMY® hubs are designed to bring circular business forward"

Interview from 07.07.2022

Dr. Hartmut Pflaum is project manager of the CIRCONOMY® initiative.

Putting sustainable production, sustainable consumption and the circular economy into practice requires systemic and technical solutions. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft proposes to achieve this via a Germany-wide network of CIRCONOMY® Hubs. In this interview, Dr. Hartmut Pflaum explains the thought process behind this idea and the various ways these hubs can be implemented. He is the project manager of the CIRCONOMY® initiative.

What are CIRCONOMY® Hubs?

To answer this question, I need to provide a bit of background... In Germany, there is currently no overarching infrastructure, institution or body that coordinates projects aiming to move us towards the circular economy. Instead, there are lots of initiatives, some of them small, that are working towards this goal. They are all good in their own right, but they are not networked with each other. This means many of them are starting from scratch and cannot learn from each other. Moreover, many of these initiatives have only a local or regional reach. It is these limitations that we are trying to compensate with the CIRCONOMY® Hubs.

Ideally, each hub will be dedicated to a particular topic and advance the circular economy in that area. They will do this by bringing together suitable partners from science, business, associations and society in a targeted and coordinated way. The CIRCONOMY® brand provides the framework for this transfer-oriented collaboration. It includes, amongst other things, a voluntary commitment to contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In addition, several Fraunhofer institutes have drawn up a charter for Sovereign Value Cycles (SVCs), which acts more or less like the brand’s articles of association. This charter is based on three strategies for future sustainable production methods and consumption styles, namely consistent implementation of cycles, creation of sustainable value, and the need for sovereignty in designing these systems.

What does the process of establishing a CIRCONOMY® Hub look like?

At the moment, on the research side, it is mainly Fraunhofer institutes that are involved. Each of them has in mind one or more topics they would like to work on in order to make the circular economy a reality. Examples include urban systems, circularity for renewable energies and recycling of building rubble. The institutes involved then consider the following questions: What do we need to think about in order to ensure implementation can start as soon as possible? What partners do we need? And how can we finance it all? The most advanced in this regard are our colleagues at Fraunhofer UMSICHT in Sulzbach-Rosenberg and at the Fraunhofer Institutes IGB and IWKS. Together they have set up a preliminary project whose goal is establishing a hub. The name of the project is Circular Carbon Technologies (CCT).

What is this preliminary project working on?

Its focus is on connecting energy and raw material processes — to exploit non-fossil carbon sources, for example — to recirculate and sequester carbon in products and to integrate these technologies into energy/economic cycles. In the CIRCONOMY® Hub that will be the outcome of the project, demonstrators for Circular Carbon Technologies will then be created in local application centers and operated with industry participation. The ultimate goal is for the technologies developed to be put into industrial application and introduced into existing, regional production and value creation networks.

So, the project is regionally focused...

In this case, yes. There are basically two possible types of CIRCONOMY® Hub. On the one hand, they can be established at a location or campus where a new building or technical center needs to be constructed, for example. But they can also be established virtually. In other words, everything needed for implementation is already available - but at different locations. The hub brings this infrastructure together — across both Germany and Europe.

So, once there are several CIRCONOMY® Hubs in place, what will the overarching coordination and management look like?

First of all, there is the common articles of association already mentioned — the Fraunhofer Charter. In addition, all of the partners commit to sharing their information with everyone. This will be achieved using a shared data, knowledge and learning platform, which everyone will be able to access and benefit from. On this platform, we will also make available the knowledge that has been developed so far. This includes, for example, know-how about the four lead markets: the chemical industry, the agriculture and food industry, the energy sector and the construction industry. It will also contain the knowledge gathered about circular business models, to enable the hub results to be put into practice quickly.


But CIRCONOMY® Hub research partners do not necessarily have to be part of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, correct?

That’s right. Our doors are also open to universities, the Leibniz Association or the Helmholtz Association. The minimum goal of each CIRCONOMY® Hub is to bring research and business together. Associations, society and local stakeholders are highly desirable, but not a must.

What sort of social partners could get involved?

They could be representatives of a non-profit organization, such as Greenpeace, WWF or BUND, or a local partner. If a CIRCONOMY® Hub would like to intervene on a city level, Agenda 21 groups would be helpful. Committed individuals are also welcome. We think it is very important that the hubs focus not only on information but also on participation. We want the social partners to be involved in designing the processes that the CIRCONOMY® Hubs are meant to initiate.

Are any more hubs already being prepared?

We’re not short of ideas. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Electric Powertrain Hub, for example, is focused on the powertrain in an electric car, including the battery and everything that goes with it. The partners involved are thinking about circular design. For example, there is currently no system for returning batteries and electric motors. These products have valuable metals built into them, which are lost if those products end up in electronic waste. But as with many other CIRCONOMY® Hubs that are in nascent stages, the current task is to find more partners and secure funding. So, there is a lot going on behind-the-scenes.