A recently published report by CDP, a not-for-profit charity focusing on data for investors and chemical supply chain analysts, has found that the chemical industry is failing to meet Paris Climate Change Agreement targets. While the insightful report did suggest that some companies have made significant progress towards improved energy efficiency, sustainable feedstock sourcing, and lowering carbon emissions, on the whole progress was too slow and the changes that have been implemented do not go far enough.
How to Assess the Chemical Industry’s Environmental Impact
The report, entitled ‘Catalyst for Change’, assessed the top 22 largest chemical companies in the world in four key areas, thus aligning the study with recommendations from the G20 Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). These areas were:
- Transition risks: Assessing companies’ emissions intensity, energy intensity and indirect global greenhouse gas (Scope 3) emissions in the value chain.
- Physical risks: Assessing companies’ use of water, water quality and governance metrics.
- Transition opportunities: Assessing companies’ progress and strategy in shifting towards a low carbon economy by looking at product and process innovation, low carbon revenues, R&D spend and use of renewable energy.
- Climate governance and strategy: Analyzing companies’ governance frameworks including emissions reduction targets and alignment of governance and remuneration structures with low carbon objectives.
Sustainability is a key area for the chemicals industry given that the environmental journal Sustainable Brands, notes that, “The chemical sector is responsible for an eighth of global industrial CO2 emissions and plays a key role in the world economy, with 95 percent of all manufactured products relying on chemicals. Despite the industry’s ability to innovate on low carbon, it will struggle to fully decarbonize if it doesn’t make rapid and significant changes to its own highly polluting processes.”
Making Progress but on Climate Change the Chemical Industry “Doesn’t go Far Enough”
This means that the CDP document is a significant school report on the progress that the industry is making. The results so far offer both encouraging and disappointing news. Its states that;
- “The chemicals sector performs well in terms of emissions and energy intensities, with most companies in the universe covered showing annualized improvements in emissions and energy efficiency of between 2-5% which flow directly to the bottom line.”
Adding that, “Efficiency improvements are likely to continue, although the pace will be incremental in the short term, evidenced by much less ambitious targets for emissions intensity, [in an industry where] even small changes in efficiency could be meaningful given the scale of operations.”
- The report notes that there is a lack of strong impact innovation, with, “High carbon risks remaining for the sector in the medium to long term which require game changing technologies in feedstock and processes which are a good 5 -10 years away with current process innovation based on incremental improvements.”
- While the investment into R&D is present (notably five times higher than other industries), the industry lacks transparency, “evidenced by the lack of reporting on disaggregated data, with a prolonged period of cross border M&A and vertical integration creating groups which are hard to analyze and regulate.”
- Furthermore, the industry is likely to experience a ‘diesel’ moment, when political pressure to achieve a circular economy will impact the packaging and plastics industries. This pivotal event will be similar in scale to that affecting the automotive industry and how it has been rocked by legislation promoting lower emissions from diesel vehicles.
- The report also comments on the vast regional differences in legislation, with “European chemical companies facing tougher regulation from committed carbon emission cuts and potentially higher capex in the medium to long term.” Such differences were also noted for water consumption, which varied greatly from region to region and sector to sector.
- Finally, the report singled out AkzoNobel as a “clear leader, outperforming all other companies by a clear margin across most metrics.” While labelling Formosa and LyondellBasell as the worst ranking chemical companies in the study.
The League Table of Low Carbon Transition Readiness of the Top 22 Global Chemical Companies Photo credit: CDP
However, the report does have some major flaws, as critics (and the report itself) have pointed out that the analysis does not include, “Chinese chemical industry and the petrochemical businesses of oil & gas companies.” This is significant given that the Chinese chemical industry accounts for 40% of global chemical production, and the Chinese government’s failure to provide data for analysis harms efforts to combat climate change.
Similarly, by studying only the largest 22 chemical companies, the report is focusing on only 25% of the chemical industry’s total emissions. In fact, the report highlighted the challenges in regulating, studying, and governing such a large, varied, and fractious industry. Where law changes or processes implemented for one sector may be completely inappropriate and unworkable in another.
How Committed is the Chemical Industry to Combating Climate Change?
In response to the criticism provided in the report, the chemical industry has reaffirmed its environmental pledges. American Chemicals Society executive director and CEO Thomas Connelly Jr stating that, “Climate change represents a real and current threat to our economy, health and welfare. America should continue to take the lead in addressing global greenhouse gas emissions and become a leader in sustainable energy production and technology.”
The European chemical industry remains similarly committed, with that CEFIC already planning on ways that, “the chemical industry can become carbon neutral by 2050.” While CEFIC Director General Marco Mensink remains positive about the future, stating at a recent event, that, “The Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) Innovation Fund should contribute to technology that can effectively decrease CO2 emissions.”
What Should the Chemical Industry be Doing for the Environment?
However, while the chemical industry as a whole has been quick to claim the moral high ground, by reaffirming its commitment to sustainability and to lowering carbon emissions, it has yet to put sufficient meat on the bones to answer some of the industry’s toughest questions.
• Can the chemical industry stop its reliance on fossil fuels?
• Can the industry self-regulate itself sufficiently to prevent cases of localised pollution (Baia Mare Cyanide spill, Bhopal, BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, Tennessee fly ash slurry leak …)?
• Can the chemical industry innovate more environmentally sound and sustainable products, such as bioplastics, or sustainable, non-plastic packaging quick enough?
• Can the industry sufficiently lower its energy use, currently 11% of global total (28% of global industrial use)?
As Paul Simpson, CEO of CDP, told the environmental journal The New Economy: “As both a large energy user itself and a crucial part of other industrial supply chains the chemicals industry is an important, but often overlooked, sector when it comes to environmental impact. Today’s analysis shows it’s moving in the right direction across several climate metrics with encouraging signs on annual emissions and R&D, but it needs to go further and faster to invest in the technologies that will deliver efficiency and emissions improvements. Ultimately it needs to set and achieve more ambitious environmental targets to reach a tipping point that both catalyzes progress towards the Paris Agreement goals and directly improves the bottom line.”
Photo credit: metrology blogspot, algorithima-technologies, & climatechangenews
Chemists Develop a Practical Toolbox for Predicting the Solubility of Small Molecules in Different Solvents
Solvents are a vital part of the manufacturing and chemical industry, as they often make up the bulk of a chemical product, and dramatically affect how it works. For example, solvents influence how pesticides stay longer on leaves, how paints and inks dry faster, and how cosmetics are applied more easily.
One of the biggest challenges facing solvent manufacturers when developing new chemical products is predicting the solubility of small molecules in different solvents. But this task is about to become a lot easier as research chemists have created a ‘practical toolbox’ to aid solvent developers and chemical raw material suppliers in predicting how molecules will react in solvents.
Up until now, solubility has been predicted using the, so-called, Hansen Solubility Parameters: dispersion (D), polar interactions (P), and hydrogen bonding (H). Currently, this is used to great effect in the coatings and polymers industry for predicting the solubility of polymers.
However, the parameters have two major limitations that prevent them being used effectively in other industries, such as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics:
1. Drugs and cosmetics typically have more varied functional groups.
2. The original Hansen parameters exclude thermodynamic considerations regarding mixing, melting and dissolution. This is acceptable for polymers (where the thermodynamics cancel out) but not for small molecules.
Working with a team based at Solvay (headed by Dr Bernard Roux), Dr Manuel Louwerse and Prof. Gadi Rothenberg, have now improved Hansen’s model and adapted it to handle small-molecule solutes by including the thermodynamics of mixing, melting and dissolution.
As the online scientific journal Phys.org explains, “The improvements are based on a better description of both the entropy and the enthalpy terms. When a compound dissolves, molecules leave the crystal and mix into the solvent. This increases the entropy, but usually costs some enthalpy. The key issue here is that the amount of entropy gained by mixing determines how much enthalpy can be lost while keeping a negative ∆G (in other words, maintaining the driving force for the dissolution). Since the entropy effect depends on the concentration, the temperature, and the size of the molecules, these should all be included.”
The research team have now published their results in the journal ChemPhysChem, where they write, “The most important corrections include accounting for the solvent molecules’ size, the destruction of the solid’s crystal structure, and the specificity of hydrogen bonding interactions, as well as opportunities to predict the solubility at extrapolated temperatures.” Adding that, so far, “Testing the original and the improved methods on a large industrial dataset including solvent blends, fit qualities improved from 0.89 to 0.97 and the percentage of correct predictions rose from 54% to 78%.”
This is a significant improvement, as simply guessing the solubility of blends would give 50% correct predictions. The new model also enables predictions at extrapolated temperatures.
Furthermore, the research team has made access to the models and a full description of the theory publicly accessible, with the ‘full and annotated Matlab routines’ available. This has allowed other researchers to begin making adjustments to the HSPiP software.
The decision to share the ‘toolbox’ with everyone is based on a desire to bring academics and industry closer together. As Prof. Rothenberg notes, “Industrial partners need to keep their data confidential, but most of them realise that open-access publishing of the methods and tools creates goodwill and enables further developments by both collaborators and competitors. By sharing methods and tools, companies can benefit from each other’s knowledge without sacrificing data.”
How far this ‘goodwill’ goes in the business world is uncertain, but what is clear is that the ‘toolbox’ for predicting small molecule solubility in solvents will shorten the time and lower the cost for developing improved chemical products. By sharing the information, the researchers are helping the entire chemical industry.
Research chemists from Berkeley Lab in California have unlocked a class of polymers that they claim are cleaner and cheaper to produce than polycarbonate plastics. They also believe that the manufacturing processes will be easy to upscale, and will make less waste by-product.
Such is the excitement over this new range of polymers, that many are wondering if this class of plastics could replace polycarbonates as the ‘go-to material’ for the modern world.
The story begins in 2001, with the introduction of ‘click chemistry’ by the Nobel laureate K. Barry Sharpless. ‘Click chemistry’ is a concept in organic chemistry that describes a range of highly reactive, yet controllable reactions that have high yields, with little to no purification required.
As the Berkeley Lab website describes, “Following nature’s example, click reactions follow simple protocols, use readily available starting materials, and work under mild reaction conditions with benign starting reagents. Click chemistry has become a valuable tool for generating large libraries of potentially useful compounds as industries look to discover new drugs and materials.”
“Click chemistry is a powerful tool for materials discovery,” explains Yi Liu, director of the Organic Synthesis facility at the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “but synthetic chemists are often not well-equipped to characterize the polymers they create. [Here at the Foundry] we can provide a broad spectrum of expertise and instrumentation that can expand the scope and impact of their research.”
Publishing their results in the journal Nature, the chemists report that, “Polysulfates and polysulfonates possess exceptional mechanical properties making them potentially valuable engineering polymers. However, they have been little explored due to a lack of reliable synthetic access.”
By using the Molecular Foundry, a facility that specializes in nanoscale science, a team led by Sharpless and Peng Wu were able to create long chains of linked sulfur-containing molecules, termed polysulfates and polysulfonates, using a SuFEx click reaction.
As the Berkeley Lab website explains, “Polymers are assembled from smaller molecules – like stringing a repeating pattern of beads on a necklace. In creating a polysulfonate ‘necklace’ with SuFEx, the researchers identified ethenesulfonyl fluoride-amine/aniline and bisphenol ether as good ‘beads’ to use and found that using bifluoride salt as a catalyst made the previously slow reaction ‘click’ into action.”
A newly developed chemical technique could make polysulfate plastics more competitive with polycarbonates.
The research team have now published their results explaining how the new SuFEx catalyst was able to produce a high quality and durable polymer, with little waste. Stating, “Bifluoride salts are significantly more active in catalysing the SuFEx reaction compared to organosuperbases.”
Adding that, “Using this chemistry, we are able to prepare polysulfates and polysulfonates with high molecular weight, narrow polydispersity and excellent functional group tolerance. The process is practical with regard to the reduced cost of catalyst, polymer purification and by-product recycling. We have also observed that the process is not sensitive to scale-up, which is essential for its future translation from laboratory research to industrial applications.”
Similar results were published in the scientific journal Angewandte Chemie, where the catalyst’s high rate of effectiveness was noted. The report stating that, “The SuFEx-based polysulfonate formation reaction exhibited excellent efficiency and functional group tolerance, producing polysulfonates with a variety of side chain functionalities in >99 % conversion within 10 min to 1 h.”
The research team also found that the 99% efficiency rate of the catalyst meant that as much as 100 to 1,000 times less was needed, resulting in the production of significantly less hazardous waste. As Berkeley Lab notes, “Bifluoride salts are also much less corrosive than previously used catalysts, allowing for a wider range of starting substrate ‘beads,’ which researchers said they hope could lead to its adoption for a range of industrial processes.”
Given the wide-ranging use of polycarbonate polymers in making everything from goggles, to frames for glasses, drinks bottles, syringes, and even bulletproof glass, then a cleaner, cheaper polymer replacement could have a huge impact on the plastics industry. With the research team claiming that the manufacturer of polysulfates is efficiently up-scalable, then it might not be long before plastic manufacturers begin to change their products.
In fact, given the success of the work being done at Berkeley, it is possible that ‘Click Chemistry’ will lead to the development of even more new polymers, and other ground-breaking material discoveries. As Liu observes, “There are many new polymers that haven’t been widely used by industry before. By reducing waste and improving product purity, we can lower costs and make reactions much more industry friendly.”
Photo credit: Chinaperfectroof
Photo credit: Berkeley Lab