Green Chemistry Grows From Grass Roots

Putting sustainable chemistry at the heart of business is now a major concern for a wealth of industry players. Muriel Axford looks at how the trend is maintaining economical hope in the industry.


Green chemistry, or sustainable chemistry as it is sometimes known, is defining the way in which the chemical and allied industries develop new products and processes. In general, it means the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances.

In addition, it includes the 'cradle to cradle' concept whereby the life-cycle of a product can be tracked from the production of the basic materials to the manufacture, use and subsequent disposal, all of which should not have a negative impact on the environment. But as well as the positive environmental impact, green chemistry can also lead to significantly reduced plant operating costs, benefiting business.

Established chemical production processes have seen changes which have led to reduced energy and water consumption, minimised by-products and even noise reduction. A well-documented example is Shell Chemical's styrene production process.

Changes since 1980, when the company first commercially produced styrene monomer, mean that Shell's newest plants use 35% less energy for every tonne of material produced, while emissions to air have been cut by 90%.

"Shell's newest plants use 35% less energy for every tonne of material produced, while emissions to air have been cut by 90%."

The heart of sustainability

Along with the ongoing process changes, chemical producers are committing to putting sustainability at the heart of their future business development. During 2005, Dow Chemical announced its 2015 Sustainability Goals, which included commitments to continue R&D efforts in green chemistry and improve resource management.

An implementation of this is Dow's recent move to piping methane, generated as a by-product from its landfill sites, to its latex production facility in Georgia, US.

Dow Chemical's chief sustainability officer David Kepler says that when sustainability practices are put into place, and scaled up, their outcomes can be wide-reaching. "Sustainable chemistry begins by assuring our own footprint is light but it only reaches its full potential when it delivers solutions to the problems faced by society," he says.

Kepler's opinion is endorsed and taken further by the UK's Institute of Chemical Engineers chief executive Dr David Brown. "Sustainable chemistry will play an important role in addressing some of the key social issues we face in terms of the impact of climate change, the availability of fossil fuels, the security of energy supply, safe water, affordable healthcare and more effective material resources," he says.

The incremental changes that continue to be made by businesses in the chemical sector are just the beginning. As industry responds to consumer concern, and with the possibility of falling supplies of traditional base materials such as ethylene, it becomes not just the chemical industry that must be sustainable but the feedstock too.

"Along with the ongoing process changes, chemical producers are committing to putting sustainability at the heart of their future business development."

This is particularly evident in the area of plastics based on plant matter. Bioplastics have been commercially available for several years and among the leaders in this sector is US-based NatureWorks, with its high-performance starch-based polymer, polylactide (PLA), which is branded Ingeo.

In the same field Rodenburg Biopolymers has developed a product based on potato starch, a by-product of the potato processing industry. Rodenburg produces the biopolymer Solanyl, which is said to require 65% less energy compared with polyethylene production.

In addition, the focus on biofuels must not be forgotten. As research moves away from biofuels based on food crops, such as corn, to inedible plants such as jatropha seeds or algae, the push to develop cleaner greener processes has never been more evident.

Economic hopes

One of the bright spots in the midst of the severe economic downturn has been the commitment to champion green technologies – not only as a way of developing much-needed solutions but also as a way of growing a new, vibrant economic sector.

An alliance of six leading chemistry and engineering firms was established in June 2008 to support the UK industry drive for more sustainable products. SusChem UK is chaired by Brown and acts as the national platform to link with the European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry. The European group's remit is to boost biotech and chemical engineering R&D and innovation in Europe.

Emphasising the potential that SusChem UK offers the domestic industry, Brown says: "With the global market for environmental products and services estimated to exceed £300bn by 2010, there has never been a better opportunity for chemistry-using industries to develop the greener products and services to meet this demand."

"An alliance of six leading chemistry and engineering firms was established in June 2008 to support the UK industry drive for more sustainable products."

Ensuring the strength of the skill base is key to taking a new green agenda forward. To this end, the UK government's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council committed £250m in funding in late-2008 to train 2,000 new engineers and scientists over the next five years.

"Despite the difficult financial climate we're currently experiencing, there remain massive opportunities and challenges within the chemical, process and biochemical engineering communities, particularly within the energy field and genuinely sustainable development," Brown says.

The US has also encouraged green chemistry. For a number of years the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has run the Presidential Green Chemistry Awards, attracting many companies, both small and large, to enter original ideas.

The EPA also promotes the 12-point Principles of Green Chemistry – a list originally published in 1998 by Paul Anastas and John Warner in Green Chemistry Theory and Practice.

With all these grassroots movements green chemistry is no longer just a nice idea championed by a few enthusiasts. It is now a way of life for chemicals and allied industries. In these difficult economic times, failure to adopt could be costly.