Sustainability at a Micro Level

Microscopy visualizes things that are invisible to the eye. As a result, it creates progress and makes a key contribution to research on topics such as cancer, the environment, materials, and the climate.

Modern electron microscopes enable further insights into and answers to the important questions of our time. ZEISS has been involved in the ongoing development of electron microscopy for more than 80 years, including in making its production more sustainable. ZEISS and INATECH, also known as the Department of Sustainable Systems Engineering at the University of Freiburg, have been working together on a research and development project since 2021. How is it driving sustainability at ZEISS? Where will the journey take them? These are questions that are being discussed by Dr. Roya Akhavan, Sustainability Project Lead at ZEISS, and Dr. Elke Haustein, Project Manager at ZEISS Research and Microscopy Solutions, with their colleagues Prof. Frank Balle and Dr. Sebastian Kilchert (both at INATECH).

Roya Akhavan:

Electron microscopy is indispensable in many fields. Sustainability is not yet something that people automatically connect with technology at the moment, so let us start with this question: How is electron microscopy associated with sustainability?

Frank Balle: Electron microscopy is an important tool for us in research and development, for example in connection with biobased materials or materials that we use for technical applications. As part of this, we ask ourselves about factors such as longevity or circularity. Electron microscopy provides us with detailed information about interface microstructure, which gives us precious insights that we can use to make materials, components, and systems more sustainable or replace them if necessary.

Elke Haustein: It is important that we at ZEISS act on our responsibility and be pioneers, including with the production, delivery, and optimization of our devices. This is how we can keep driving sustainability.

Elke Haustein: Our goal is to build a new platform for electron microscopy that will provide the foundation for part of our devices for the next decade. Technology and finance are not the only relevant perspectives, either. Rather, we are also taking sustainability into account. In one-and-a-half to two years’ time, we want to offer an electron microscope that suits the current era in terms of the material and energy resources needed for production as well as the resources that are used. Customers should be able to optimize the energy demand during usage.

Sebastian Kilchert: Asking the overarching question of ‘How can we make the new platform more sustainable?’ has resulted in an entire array of lower-level goals. They see us looking from a variety of perspectives and trying to find new ways to exert influence. Often, the things you can do to become more sustainable are not entirely clear. Our first goal was to demonstrate the specific leverage points that we have.

Roya Akhavan:

What goal do ZEISS and INATECH have and how are we edging closer toward it together?

Roya Akhavan:

Key phrases such as resource usage have already been mentioned, but how can a scanning electron microscope (SEM) itself be made more sustainable?

Sebastian Kilchert: A microscope has various impacts on the environment. During its usage, power consumption has a major influence. When it comes to efficient resource usage, that is, manufacturing and material consumption, we can approach it from different angles. At the end of its life cycle, we have other options in the form of different types of refurbishment or recycling.

Elke Haustein: We have been working on improving our environmental impact through many little steps for decades now. Our biggest levers are suppliers and logistics: Where are suppliers based? How are devices packaged? How are they conveyed? It is also important that we look at our own products: How easily separable are the components? How recyclable are our devices? The entire project team is answering these questions. They are the type that cannot be answered by a single person alone or even by
a development team just by itself.

The entire project team, with Judith Kimling, Simon Diemer, Arne Janssen, Ulrich Kohl-Roscher, Roland Lenz, John Craven, and Sven, helps us to get closer to our goal bit by bit.

Roya Akhavan:

The way this pioneering project is developing is exciting. What have been some key milestones? Where is the project at currently and what can we still expect from it?

Sebastian Kilchert: First, we examined the existing system and assessed its sustainability through a life cycle analysis. This information then went into many aspects of product development, which we are now looking at in detail. Our next step is to think about the parts that we can actually keep and incorporate when we consider further aspects.

Frank Balle: We have started a major task with the bench- marking for the current system in particular. We now also have a few approaches for packaging and clothing, things that we can easily modify without putting the functionality of the electron microscope at risk. There is quite a bit that we have achieved together, and there is still much to come.

Elke Haustein: We are about to finish predevelopment in the second half of the year, which in this case means the technical feasibility assessment. After that, we will transition to the main development stage. We will use the findings that we have obtained together to keep working continuously on sustainability and create ideas for other projects. This is already partly happening since the awareness surrounding sustainability has also grown within other projects. We are currently taking the first steps together on a very long journey.

Frank Balle: The considerate, candid, and constructive dialog in the project team and the shared desire to change things. It makes for a fun experience. I believe that we will achieve great things together with the spirit of this project.

Sebastian Kilchert: Sustainable development entails a trans-formation of the entire economy. I think that the people at ZEISS are aware of this. We want to take action and, in conjunction with ZEISS, be pioneers in technological sustainability.

Elke Haustein: Something else that is particularly nice is that our managers are keenly interested and fully have our backs. This gives us the power to set things in motion and put them into practice, and that makes me feel optimistic. It is not just a short-term trend. Instead, we can establish sustainability for the long-term.

Roya Akhavan:

We are achieving everything that has been mentioned here through a fruitful partnership between research and industry. What makes you think that we have the right project partners on board and what do you think of our future together?

Roya Akhavan:

Thank you for these positive closing words and the initial insights into the exciting project. It is fantastic being part of it.

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