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Emil researches for LEGO to develop the LEGO bricks of the future

More sustainable bricks are the goal of Emil Andersen's industrial PhD. Together with LEGO Group and the Department of Engineering, he has researched the degradation mechanisms for what could become the plastic of the future, for example for the toys from Billund.

Photo: Søren Kjeldgaard/LEGO

LEGO bricks must be more sustainable. This is the ambition for the fossil-based ABS plastic products, which before 2030 are to be made of bio-based plastics or recycled plastics, for example.

In order to achieve this goal, LEGO Group has teamed up with an industrial PhD, Emil Andersen, and the Department of Engineering at Aarhus University.

- The world’s facing huge challenges in relation to the climate. Materials can lose their properties through use. We have to find sustainable solutions for the plastics products of the future. LEGO bricks are extremely durable, and they want new bricks made of new, sustainable and green materials to be just as just as durable, says industrial PhD Emil Andersen.

DKK 1 billion for development

The LEGO Group has earmarked DKK 1 billion (EUR 130 million) to reach its sustainable 2030 ambition, which was put together in 2015. In addition to their bricks, packaging is also to be produced from sustainable plastics, and products must be as durable as they have always been. 

- We've been using the same plastic in most of our LEGO products for more than 60 years. We know that it works, and we know that it lasts, but we want to be even better at analysing the durability of our products. This is why we started this collaboration with Aarhus University, to achieve a deeper understanding of what makes things work and how to find new materials that work just as well as the old ones, says René Mikkelsen, senior project manager at Materials R&D at LEGO and industrial PhD supervisor.

The collaboration on more sustainable bricks started in 2017, and by as early as 2018 LEGO Group was able to launch its first products made with bio-based plastic made from sugarcane.

- Today, we can carry out detailed studies of the materials, so that we can incorporate more science into the sustainable products of the future, explains René Mikkelsen.

Green transition on the way

Together with LEGO Group, researchers from Aarhus University have mapped many of the degradation mechanisms for a group of plastic materials with sustainable potential as the high-value plastic toys of the future.

For 18 months, Emil Andersen and Professor Mogens Hinge from Plastic and Polymer Engineering at the Department of Engineering tested different materials by baking them in laboratory kilns for thousands of hours.

- These tests have never been run before, so we’ve not been able to find any documentation in academic literature. Therefore, we had to start from scratch and work out methods and models we can apply in the future, says industrial PhD supervisor, Professor Mogens Hinge.

The conclusion is that neither water nor oxygen break down the plastic materials that held up in the tests. The plastics investigated only change as a result of so-called physical ageing, which mainly comes from heating effects.

- When we know the primary degradation mechanisms for the different types of polymers, we can very quickly screen new types of plastic. Instead of waiting five years to find out whether new types of plastic will work, we can make lifetime assessments for new plastic products and speed up the green transition, explains Emil Andersen.

Benefits for the entire plastics industry

With outset in the new discoveries from the collaboration, researchers will be able to predict how the material in LEGO bricks will behave and what it is affected by. However, LEGO have yet to realise their ambition.

- We don't expect to find a material that behaves completely the same as what we have today, but perhaps we can actually end up with something that is even better, says LEGO's senior project manager, René Mikkelsen.

For Emil Andersen, another equally important aim for his industrial PhD is to lead the way towards more sustainable production – not only for LEGO, but also for similar companies.

- Since LEGO is a high-quality product, I believe that if we can showcase a complete transformation from non-sustainable materials to sustainable materials of equally high quality, many other companies will be inspired to follow suit, says Emil.

The industrial PhD runs from 1 August 2017 to 1 August 2020. The parties behind the project, LEGO Group, Aarhus University and Emil Andersen have had their research findings published in the RSC Advances research journal from the Royal Society of Chemistry.

The project is an Open Science project, which means that the results are available to everyone.

Contacts for more knowledge about the project