Image shows a sign, in German, for the Max Planck group
The Max Planck Society and Amazon have awarded gift research funding to two researchers for projects that aim to minimize waste by keeping materials, products, and services in circulation for as long as possible.

Amazon and Max Planck Society announce Science Hub sustainability project awards

Two Max Planck Society researchers receive funding for projects to develop new ways to advance a more circular economy.

The Max Planck Society and Amazon have awarded gift research funding to Max Planck Society researchers Joerg Stueckler and Dirk Ponge for projects that aim to minimize waste by keeping materials, products, and services in circulation for as long as possible.

Stueckler and Ponge submitted their projects in response to the Max Planck Society and Amazon Science Hub’s Sustainability Call for Research Proposals (CFP), intended to advance state-of-the-art processes for a more circular economy.

“At Amazon, we strongly believe that innovation guided by science is essential to resolve the challenges of building a more sustainable environment,” said Zak Watts, Amazon’s director of sustainability in Europe. “We are excited to work with the Max Planck Society to work towards a more circular economy, including deploying robotics to improve waste recovery.”

Stueckler is a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems. His research group focuses on embodied vision, particularly the study of robots that learn to perceive and act through interaction with their environments.

Joerg Stueckler
Joerg Stueckler

Stueckler’s project is titled “Physically plausible multi-object 6D pose estimation in object piles from RGB-D images.” When recycling or reusing objects, the ability to automatically identify single items from piles of objects is a critical step in collecting and sorting new or used items in return shipments. To solve such problems with robotic systems, robots need the ability to detect objects in a pile and also to work out in which order and how the objects can be removed.

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“The project provides us with an opportunity to pursue cutting-edge research that could facilitate the development of new technologies towards a more resource-efficient and sustainable circular economy,” Stueckler said.

Stueckler is working to develop algorithms that estimate the position and orientation of objects and of the physical interactions between them. The algorithms use RGB-D images — shorthand for “red-green-blue-depth” — to predict an object’s 6D pose, meaning its position and orientation. Over the next year, Stueckler and his team will focus on objects with known shape and texture piled in a box, a common scenario in logistics applications.

Dirk Ponge
Dirk Ponge

Ponge is a group leader in the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research’s Department of Microstructure Physics and Alloy Design. His project, “Improving EU aluminum recycling rate,” aims to integrate more end-of-life aluminum products into the recycling stream.

Recycling aluminum from scrap can save up to 95 percent of the energy used in the production of new or primary aluminum. Aluminum and its alloys go through multiple recycling loops during their life cycle. Due to the inevitable mixing of incompatible scrap and different metals that occurs during the recycling process, harmful impurities are enriched in the secondary aluminum alloys. After multiple cycles, this causes them to become “dirty aluminum.”

By using thermodynamics to enhance the tolerance of recycled aluminum for impurities, Ponge proposes to increase the recycling rate while decreasing new aluminum in the recycling loop.

“We have to improve the recycling rate of aluminum alloys in order to achieve the goals of circular economy and sustainable metallurgy,” Ponge said.

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Ponge also proposes to use advanced materials-characterization techniques as well as new alloy-design simulations to investigate damage in recycled aluminum caused by impurities. The goal of Ponge’s project is to fine-tune the microstructure of aluminum to allow for more impurities while maintaining the aluminum’s quality.

Launched in 2022, the Max Planck Society and Amazon Science Hub focuses on advancing research and development in Germany. It is the first Amazon Science Hub to exist outside the United States and its researchers harness techniques including automated reasoning and artificial intelligence in their sustainability work.

Sustainability proposals were reviewed and selected jointly by Max Planck Society and Amazon using three criteria: intellectual merit, innovation or translational impact, and execution. The Science Hub also looked for projects that addressed four particular challenges. These included establishing end-to-end transparency in the recycling system across Europe; increasing waste collection rates from European consumers; implementing technological or infrastructural changes to the European recycling system; and scaling improvements to the European recycling system via policy or industry collaborations.

All of the project results will be made available to the general public in the spirit of open source and open science through academic publications.

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