Chemical industry invests in green R&D

05 February 2007 08:00  [Source: ICB Americas]

In a bid to shake off its reputation for causing pollution, the chemicals industry is investing millions of dollars in research for green living development. Time to tell the world more

THE CHEMICAL industry gets its fair share of bad publicity where the environment is concerned, but the environmental impact of chemicals goes far beyond the stories of spills, explosions, pollution and poisoning, which have all too often hit the headlines. With climate change clawing its way to the top of every chemical producer's agenda, the sector is starting to ensure that it makes a positive contribution to saving the planet. This has involved reducing energy use, since energy efficiency and improving water quality are paramount to chemical firms. This results in a phenomenal investment in research and development (R&D).

Now in their third year, our own ICIS Innovation Awards highlight just a few of the latest technologies and applications (ICIS Chemical Business Americas October 16-22, 2006), but barely scratch the surface of the billions of dollars ploughed into R&D each year.

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According to recent figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), China will spend just over $136bn on R&D in 2006, ahead of Japan's $130bn and second only to the US, at $330bn.

Estimates put the outlay of the EU-15, including France, Germany and the UK, at around $230bn.

Perhaps more now than ever, those in the chemical industry are striving to help find solutions to the world's ills, having for so long been perceived as part of the problem. And there is still some work to be done to convince a skeptical public.

Driving seat

Certainly, as the regulation of vehicle emissions continues to gain credence, chemical producers have been put in the driving seat to ensure significant reductions can be achieved over the coming years.

Global car sales are rising 1-2%/year, with China seeing particularly rapid growth. By the end of the decade, it will be home to one of the leading automotive sectors.

Lesley Owens of UK-based Citac Global last year said that auto ownership will have jumped to 100 cars/1,000 people by 2015 from today's 20 cars/1,000 people.

With escalating demand, and vehicle emissions one of the primary contributors to global warming, petchem producers recognize that it is essential that new technologies are developed to minimize vehicles' impact on the environment.

Take, for example, last year's emergence of ethyl tertiary butyl ether (ETBE) and ethanol as fuel additives in Europe and the US, respectively. The EU had already set a target of replacing 5.75% of transport fuels with biofuels by 2010, but the phasing out of methanol-based MTBE in the US last May has put biofuels firmly in the spotlight.

Additives given a kick-start

Lucrative subsidies and incentive schemes have given these renewable-based fuel additives a real kick-start and encouraged a number of producers to convert their plants and shift from conventional methods of production. Among the first to break into this area was Lyondell, which produced a test batch of ETBE in 2004. Demand was strong, and the initial 20,000 tonnes sold out.

But as well as taking measures to ensure that cars run efficiently, companies are increasingly substituting harmful or energy-intensive materials used in their manufacture with more eco-friendly alternatives.

Around 100kg of petrochemical-based plastics in a modern car can replace 200-300kg of traditional materials. Benefits include weight reduction, improved fuel economy and cheaper components that generate less noise.

Nylons are increasingly found in turbochargers and transmissions, or even under the hood in a manifold cover as a direct replacement for metals. Polypropylene now forms the dashboard molding, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is used to mount the lights. Even the fuel tank can be made from high density polyethylene.

Polycarbonate (PC) is certainly one for the future. Although commonly used in headlamps, it is the polymer's application in car windshields that is expected to have the most potential over the coming years.

Forecasts from Bayer suggest that PC will soon supersede glass, with the global consumption of automotive glazing reaching around 100,000-200,000 tonnes/year by 2014.

According to US environmental group the Ecology Center, car manufacturers are also using more bio-based plastics. Toyota is developing an eco-plastic made from sugarcane or corn. DaimlerChrysler, meanwhile, has increased its use of renewable materials in some vehicles by up to 98%, and is using natural materials such as flax and abaca fibers.

Efficient shipping

Although shipping is an energy-efficient form of transport, it is still essential that its environmental impact is minimized.

Around 500m tonnes/year of fuel is consumed by commercial shipping worldwide the industry emits 1.6bn tonnes/year of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 30m tonnes/year of sulphur dioxide (SO2). Forecasts by the International Maritime Organization suggest that without adopting new technologies, fuel consumption by the shipping fleet could increase by 38-72% by 2020.

With fuel prices high, titanium dioxid coatings can greatly reduce operating costs.

Luciano Caruso, worldwide commercial executive at International Paint, says using antifouling coatings on the hulls of ships prevents the build-up of barnacles and seaweed and therefore helps improve the speed and cut the fuel consumption of the vessel, with no biocides polluting the waters. Any debris that does stick to the hull is far easier to wash off from a coated surface when the ship docks, minimizing water use.

Without these coatings, says Caruso, total fuel consumption could rise by up to 40% to 700m tonnes/year. But with them, emissions can drop by 640m tonnes/year and 12m tonnes/year for CO2 and SO2, respectively. As well as environmental benefits, cost savings on fuel amount to around $50bn.

Cutting energy use has become a priority and it is well publicized that industry has raised its efforts to slash consumption, but simple chemical applications domestically can also make a significant impact.

An average home uses double the energy, and emits twice as much CO2 as a car. As we all know, wall and pipe insulation can minimize energy loss and cut homeowners' bills.

More than 50 years ago, Dow developed its Styrofoam brand of extruded polystyrene (PS) insulation. It is made by extruding foamed PS, and offers low thermal conductivity and low water absorption - impervious to the elements with little or no degradation over long periods.

Styrofoam's closed cell structure gives the foam additional physical strength and rigidity, adding to its adaptability. Another bonus is that payback is limited to only a few years.

Similarly, a subsidiary of Bayer Material-Science, BaySystems North America (BSNA), recently launched its BaySeal spray polyurethane (PU) insulating foam (SPF). The latest environmentally friendly incarnation of SPF uses water as a blowing agent rather than the more common fluorocarbon - or cyclopentane-based agents. BSNA adds that it contains no ozone depleting chemicals.

However, among the most fundamentally important areas of investment - and one of the most rapidly expanding - is water treatment. More than 1bn people are without potable water worldwide and firms are increasingly having to address the problem.

Dow Chemical is the world leader in water purification and desalination, and has put this at the forefront of its 2015 sustainability goals. The past year has seen the petrochemicals major concentrate on strengthening its footprint in the sector with the acquisition and expansion of several water treatment businesses. "Water is the single most important chemical compound for the preservation and flourishing of human life," said Dow CEO Andrew Liveris last summer.

GE, Kemira and Arch Chemicals are also concentrating on the sector and have invested heavily over the past year.

Angola, Uganda, Malawi, Lebanon, Sudan and India are just a few of the countries that have recently witnessed the rapid spread of cholera, diarrhea and sickness from poor sanitation and unfit drinking water. In each case, chlorine has been key to removing the bacteria and toxins, and disinfecting supplies.

Millions of water purification tablets were distributed in 2006 a prime example of the chemical industry having a positive effect on health and the environment. Now the challenge is to convince the world.


Gas to liquIds

GTL technology sees the conversion of large quantities of gas to easily transportable liquid. Its uptake is gathering pace but this emerging technology still has some way to go, as it is energy intensive and restricted by high costs. Nevertheless, GTL fuels boast low toxicity, are clean burning and significantly reduce emissions.

A number of projects and feasibility studies have been announced in recent months. In June 2006, Oryx GTL - a joint venture between Qatar Petroleum and Sasol - commissioned the world's first commercial-scale GTL plant.




Biofuels have become somewhat of a buzzword recently, perhaps most notably in their use as a fuel additive. Demand for corn sugar, sugar cane and palm oil has surged globally, and is going some way to displacing conventional chemicals.

Subsidies and incentives are already encouraging producers to jump on the biofuels bandwagon.


Keep up with biofuels on...

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