Celebrating Sustainability – Green Chemistry Challenge Awards 2011

Throughout the chemicals industry, innovation is being directed at securing a more sustainable future. Now in its 16th year, the Environmental Protection Agency's US Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award honours the very best achievements in sustainability. Muriel Axford profiles the winners.

Now in its 16th year, the Environmental Protection Agency's US Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award has given a platform to many companies that are quietly, and successfully, changing the way they produce everyday chemicals and materials.

Hailing from across a range of sectors including agriculture and architecture through to pigments, plastics and waters treatment, what all the winners have in common is the desire to use green chemistry to design processes that reduce or eliminate the use or production of hazardous substances.

While the environmental benefit, along with significant cost savings, is a driver for green technology development, a report from market research and consulting firm Pike Research shows the green chemical industry is set to have a major economic benefit.

The report, Green Chemistry, forecasts the area represents a market opportunity that will grow from $2.8bn in 2011 to $98.5bn by 2020. Pike Research estimates green alternatives in the polymer sector will represent the highest penetration level within the total chemical market as it is somewhat more developed than the other key sectors.

"What all the winners have in common is desire to use green chemistry to design processes that eliminate use of hazardous substances."

The awards are certainly an important part of the move towards greener chemicals, recognising as they do the major multinational companies, through to the smaller more niche players as well as those in academia.

 Acknowledging there is a very wide scope to the area of green chemistry, the Green Chemistry Awards focus on three key areas; the use of greener synthetic pathways, the use of greener reaction conditions and the design of greener chemicals.

As with previous years the recipients of the 2011 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge awards have pushed boundaries and invested to secure a more sustainable future.

Reducing costs, waste and emissions

Winning the Greener Synthetic Pathway Award, US-based Genomatica has developed a route for the production of 1.4-butanediol (BDO) using a microbe that ferments sugars. BDO is used to produce a range of plastics used in various applications, from automotive to footwear.

Genomatica says lifecycle analysis shows that its process requires 60% less energy than acetylene-based BDO and also the pathway leads to a reduction in CO2 emissions of 70%.

There is also a reduction of some 15%-30% in production costs when compared with petroleum-based BDO.

The award recognises several years of work by Genomatica which have seen the company produce its bio-BDO using its first demonstration scale fermentation facility located in Decatur, Illinois, US.

"The area represents an opportunity that will grow from $2.8bn in 2011 to $98.5bn by 2020."

The project has been developed in partnership with Tate & Lyle. The partners expect to have the plant in commercial production during the last quarter of 2012.

There are plans to have worldscale production facilities in the US, Asia and Europe starting in 2014.

As well as winning the award, presented during June 2011, the same month saw the company selected to receive funding from the US Department of Energy which is aimed at helping the US diversify its sources of clean, renewable alternatives to fossil fuel.

Genomatica will receive up to $5m (from a total of $36 million) to advance the technology improvements and processes to produce its bio-based materials.

Designing greener chemicals

Sherwin Williams was presented with the Designing Greener Chemicals Award for its water-based acrylic alkyd technology which has been used to make a water-based paint made from soybean oil and recycled plastic PET bottles.

Oil-based paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOC) which have been linked with air pollution. But Sherwin Williams' water-based acrylic alkyd paint reduces the VOC content by 60%.

The company said in producing its new paint formula, the need for 1000 barrels of oil was eliminated.

The small business award

The Small Business Award went to BioAmber for its bio-succinic acid. Mike Hartman, BioAmber vice president of corporate affairs, said "BioAmber is on the cusp of new technology to make chemicals in a different, less expensive and better way. It is exciting to be part of a revolution going on right now.

"The Green Chemistry award for BioAmber is a great recognition of our work over a decade. It is also recognition by the EPA that BioAmber has succeeded in producing bio-based succinic acid as a platform chemical."

Succinic acid is a building block for a number of chemicals, but BioAmber says that producing the material from fossil fuels is costly and has therefore limited its use. But since 2010 BioAmber has been producing succinic acid by bacterial fermentation of glucose.

The technology means that BioAmber's succinic acid can be produced at 40% less than that of the petroleum-based equivalent. The second quarter of 2011 saw BioAmber, Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation and Mitsui & Co announce they were conducting a feasibility study to build a succinic acid production facility in Thailand.

Greener reaction conditions

"Pike Research shows the green chemical industry is set to have a major economic benefit."

Kraton Performance Polymers walked off with the Greener Reaction Conditions Award for its NEXAR polymer membrane technology.

The NEXAR polymers are a family of halogen free, high-flow, polymer membranes which are made using less solvent than conventional membrane polymers.

Kraton says that a reverse osmosis plant using the NEXAR polymer membrane can purify far more water than one using traditional membranes and reduce energy costs by 50%.

Awarding green academic research

Last but not least the Academic Award was presented to Professor Bruce Lipshutz for his work on 'Ending our dependence on Organic Solvents'. Working at the University of California, US, Professor Lipshutz has designed a surfactant which is composed of a number of simple materials to form a surfactant called TPGS-750-M.

The new compound forms 'nanomicelles' in water that are lipophilic on the inside and hydrophilic on the outside. The technology is said to provide industrial processes with the chance to replace large amounts of organic solvents with very small amounts of a benign surfactant nano-dispersed in water only.