Integrated hybrid life cycle assessment and supply chain environmental profile evaluations of lead-based (lead zirconate titanate) versus lead-free (potassium sodium niobate) piezoelectric ceramics†
The increasing awareness of the environmental and health threats of lead as well as environmental legislation, both in the EU and around the world targeted at decreasing the use of hazardous substances in electrical appliances and products has reinvigorated the race to develop lead-free alternatives to lead zirconate titanate (PZT), which presently dominates the market for piezoelectric materials. Emphasis has been placed on one of the most likely piezoelectric materials, potassium sodium niobate (KNN), as a lead-free replacement for PZT. KNN has been speculated to have better environmental credentials and is considered as a “greener” replacement to PZT. However, a comparative environmental impact assessment of the life cycle phases of KNN versus PZT piezoelectric materials has not been carried out. Such a life cycle assessment is crucial before any valid claims of “greenness” or environmental viability of one material over the other can be made and is the focus of this paper. Against this backdrop, a methodologically robust life cycle supply chain assessment based on integrated hybrid life cycle framework is undertaken within the context of the two piezoelectric materials. Results show that the presence of niobium in KNN constitutes far greater impact across all the 16 categories considered in comparison with PZT. The increased environmental impact of KNN occurs in the early stages of the LCA due to raw material extraction and processing. As a result, the environmental damage has already occurred before its use in piezoelectric applications during which it doesn't constitute any threat. As such, the use of the term “environmentally friendly” for the description of KNN should be avoided. Cost-benefit analysis of substituting PZT with KNN also indicates that the initial cost of conversion to KNN is greater, especially for energy usage during production. This environmental assessment has allowed us to define and address environmental health and safety as well as sustainability issues that are essential for future development of these materials. Overall, this work demonstrates insightful findings that can be garnered through the application of life cycle assessment and supply chain management to a strategic engineering question which allows industries and policy makers to make informed decisions regarding the environmental consequences of substitute materials, designs, fabrication processes and usage.