10 July 2006 00:00 [Source: ICB]
As Reach nears its introduction, the industry will need to start thinking now about how to make its products and processes safer. John Whittall explains
In the next 12 months, the European chemicals industry is likely to be operating under a completely revised legislative framework. The Reach regulations are nearing the end of their Parliamentary journey, and are likely to hit the statute books early in 2007. Amid all the controversy surrounding its introduction, one benefit of Reach is that it should encourage product innovation to substitute the most hazardous chemicals.
According to a recent release by Greenpeace, the implementation of Reach should lead to environmental benefits worth up to €95bn over the next 25 years. Meanwhile, a 2005 impact assessment conducted by consultancy firm KPMG, predicted no overall increase in R&D expenses, with only limited diversion of resources.
The impact of Reach extends far beyond the chemicals industry: if you use chemicals, you must ensure that they will be supported or that alternatives exist. Any ‘chemicals of concern’ are subject to the authorisation provisions of the legislation, which are effectively a licence for specified applications, subject to periodic review. For substances of concern, authorisation will be application-specific, so manufacturers need to know the markets into which their products are supplied.
During this review, alternative products must be considered; if a safer, greener product may be demonstrated, the implication is that this will prompt the phase-out of the authorised substance with which it intended to compete. The chemical industry has traditionally had a poor knowledge of its supply chains, and the transparency that this dialogue will encourage will be a welcome by-product of the legislation.
So how should a chemical manufacturer tackle Reach? Before making any decisions, you need to know which of the firm’s products and components are most likely to be affected, and the value of the business that depends on each of these. Once these basic data have been gathered, part of the response is to prepare data for registration and ultimate authorisation. A second part is to devise substitutes to work around products that can no longer be sold (or are no longer made, due to probable component restrictions).
But the smartest companies are already thinking more broadly about their product line: What opportunities arise for us to penetrate a new market where the incumbent product is no longer viable? Which of our products should we keep – even if a new process or formulation is needed – and which are cash cows for which further spend over the next 11 years is not justified? Reach will not just require investment, it will change the dynamics of many markets, and those companies that spend that investment wisely are likely to see substantial returns.
Crystal Faraday, the UK’s network promoting the development and implementation of green chemical technologies, is linked with more than 60 research projects at 25 UK universities. These give a taste of the product innovations that the more forward-thinking companies are developing, not as a response to Reach, but as part of a strategy to develop more sustainable products and processes. The industries represented are diverse – textiles, polymers, mining as well as basic chemicals (see opposite). But the common theme is that by designing molecules and processes better, substantial reductions in environmental impact can be achieved.
Beyond the pain and expense that compliance will entail, I believe there are real benefits. Not least of which are: reduced environmental impact and better public perception. Anyone working in the chemicals industry will be painfully familiar with its decline in popularity in recent years; a 2003 Mori opinion poll evinced a more general distrust of scientists, with no single source being trusted by a majority of the UK public to tell the truth about the risks of chemicals in household goods. Reach will force a degree of transparency on the industry that will inevitably be painful at first, both in terms of the enforced dialogue with competitors and increased public scrutiny. This, however, is a necessary step on the long journey of rehabilitating our industry in the view of the public, and establishing it in their eyes as a key enabler for sustainability. If we can achieve that dramatic shift in culture, the biggest winner from Reach will be the chemical industry itself.¦
Mining industries are increasingly making use of solvent extraction for the concentration and separation of metals.
These hydrometallurgical processes have environmental and economic benefits over traditional smelting. In addition, they are suited to the processing of low-grade ores that contain complex mixtures of metals, allowing previously unviable ores to be worked. More than 30% of worldwide copper production, some 2.2m tonne, is accounted for by hydrometallurgical processing combined with solvent extraction.
Two current Crystal projects are aimed at next-generation ligands for the recovery of base and precious metals. As well as reducing the environmental impact of the process, these have the potential to make previously uneconomic sources (ores or recycled material) viable. Three university partners (Edinburgh, Southampton and Nottingham) and five industrial collaborators (Anglo Platinum, Falconbridge, Cytec Industries, Jaguar Nickel and Johnson Matthey) are involved in the projects.
Carpet tiles are traditionally made in a multilayer structure, with a surface layer typically of polypropylene or nylon (for wear-resistance and surface finish), and a bottom layer in bituminous material or PVC (for mechanical strength and dimensional stability).
While this multilayer construction makes for excellent performance in use, the flooring firm, Interface, is looking at making the product easier to recycle by constructing the product with disassembly in mind. It is being helped by the University of York’s Green Chemistry Group, which is investigating novel, environmentally friendly, adhesives systems for carpet tiles. This is intended not only to develop bio-based systems, but also to allow separation of the layers under controlled conditions, allowing the material streams to be recovered separately.
Baxenden Chemicals is working with the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) to increase the range of polyurethanes that are accessible through enzymatic methods.
The market size for urethane intermediates is more than 3m tonne/year, of which diisocyanates form more than half. Diisocyanates are potentially hazardous, and are made from hazardous reagents (phosgene) in a process that generates large amounts of hydrogen chloride.
Routes to polyurethanes that reduce or avoid the use of diisocyanates – for example using enzymes – are of keen commercial interest. An additional benefit of the Baxenden/UCLan approach is that new polymers, for which the corresponding diisocyanate is not commercially available, can be made by this method.
>> John Whittall is public sector programme manager of Crystal Faraday, part of the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network, and can be contacted at +44 1788 534489 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Crystal Faraday go to www.crystalfaraday.org www.interfaceeurope.com www.interfacesustainability.com
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