How to make the most of the trend toward green chemistry

Solving the green puzzle

09 October 2008 17:51  [Source: ICB]

"Green" chemistry is a chemical industry buzzword. But what exactly does it mean and how can you capitalize on the genuine opportunities it presents to add value?

Consultant’s corner
Chris Richardson/Sagentia

FOR THE chemicals and materials sector, sustainability is a serious challenge - and an equally serious opportunity. Business leaders should review both business development and technology strategies in order to understand how to deploy green chemistry to improve their environmental credentials, secure the bottom line and gain essential commercial advantage.

DRIVERS FOR SUSTAINABILITY

In the current climate of soaring energy and feedstock costs, even the most enlightened materials manufacturer will only consider a sustainable approach if the price is right. But it is precisely because of the volatility of the energy markets and the growing impact of climate change that green chemistry is the only way forward.

There are many good reasons why this is so. In terms of market survival, the quality of a company's environmental record now directly affects the buying decisions of its customers, and also affects shareholder and investor relations. As environmental legislation increases, industries with a good environmental record can hope to benefit from lighter touch regulation than those sectors where performance is still poor.

And in terms of human capital, current and future talented employees prefer to work for companies with value systems that match their own. Increasingly, this means businesses that take a positive approach to sustainability.

Despite these compelling business arguments, recent developments have started to confuse the issue.

Previously, consumers were willing to pay a premium for products that used less energy, fewer nonrenewable resources, or were derived from renewable materials. But with the credit crunch now biting hard, only those sustainable products that come with no price premium and which perform equivalent to or better than their nonsustainable rivals will survive.

But this does not mean that the chemical sector should abandon sustainability as an unprofitable target.

Advances in green chemistry mean that companies can achieve the goal of sustainability while generating significant savings and efficiencies throughout the production process and value chain, making their businesses leaner during the current economic downturn, and better placed to take advantage of better times ahead.

So where should the sector focus its efforts? And how are emerging issues changing this rapidly evolving debate?

ENERGY EFFICIENCY

One key area is energy efficiency in the face of rapidly rising costs. If the days of cheap energy are really over, then energy-hungry industries face a bleak future if they cannot reduce and control their energy costs. Many alternative approaches already exist: reducing energy use through process efficiency, white (industrial) biotechnology, biocatalysis, moving to intrinsically more efficient processes (such as developments in ionic liquids for surface finishing) and improved recyclability (more on this later). Savings on energy costs translate directly into lower overheads.

Important advances have also been made in the use of alternative feedstocks, where innovation was held back by the prospect of wasted investment if petrochemical prices started to fall. With oil prices reaching new and unpredictable highs, the development of renewable materials is now realizing acceptable economies of scale. One example of this trend is the increasing penetration of polylactic acid into packaging applications as materials costs fall.

But the pressures placed on the world's food supply, as farmers turn to growing lucrative biofuel crops, has shown that the development of alternative feedstocks is not necessarily a simple or easy solution. Industry needs to use energy more wisely as well as sourcing it differently. Crucially, the continuing development of these approaches enables materials suppliers to offer sustainable materials at a price comparable with traditionally sourced analogues.

Of further concern is the security of energy supply. Regular power cuts are now a real possibility, so companies need to make sure they can guarantee their energy supply, especially during peak periods, while also minimising the financial impact of rapidly rising peak-use costs.

With alternative energy solutions unable to meet demand with the consistency required, improved energy generation and storage technologies instead may deliver the greater efficiencies required.

More companies are now considering a mixed energy supply: power from their own generating plant, electricity from the grid, and power from renewables such as wind and water. Peak shaving is the primary goal here. Companies need to store sufficient energy when it is cheap and plentiful - whether on a windy day or when low tariffs apply - to use at times of most demand. And peak shaving will, in turn, lead to greater energy sustainability and self-sufficiency.

The notion that waste material is a raw material in the wrong place is relevant here. Waste reduction not only conserves increasingly valuable resources, but also helps cut disposal costs.

Simple waste recycling, of materials such as paper and inert fillers, is now the norm, but generally has only a limited impact. Greater savings can be realized through better management of more reactive and hazardous waste materials, especially by reusing them for a secondary application.

WASTEFUL PROCESSES

Better waste segregation will also help. In Japan, for example, the mountains of discarded gadgets are now considered urban mines of valuable metals, capable of rendering 150 grams of gold per ton as opposed to 5 grams from conventional mining. And although poor recycling is a serious problem, wasteful processing is just as bad.

Take indium, for example, which is used in optical flat panel displays. Growth in demand for products such as flatscreen TVs has led to concerns that the supply of indium is running out, but at the same time, some of the manufacturing processes in which indium is used are only 30-40% efficient. If waste at this level can be identified and reduced, cost benefits will result, and raw material supply will also be safeguarded.

Supporting the sustainable behavior of others in the value chain helps promote sustainability, but greener suppliers should do more than just look good on paper. Sustainability also means supplying more efficient (and therefore cheaper) services.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive regulations now being rolled out across the EU demand that manufacturers recycle their products. WEEE makes harder-to-recycle source materials increasingly unattractive feedstocks for suppliers.

Investigating the energy and carbon footprint embedded in a product over its lifetime - the "cradle to grave" analysis - is critical to an understanding of how to improve sustainability. A green value chain greatly enhances the success of this exercise.

Sustainability has become an imperative for the chemical and materials industry, not just to meet market need but also to better manage scarce or expensive resources. For too long, sustainability has been considered a threat, embodied in onerous regulation and fickle opinion, rather than an opportunity for new products and market share, which can be achieved while realizing real cost savings.

Those organisations that are able to embrace the sustainability challenge are more likely to succeed. They will seek to create new business from current challenges just as they might from any disruptive trend, with the goal of both maintaining market share and preparing for even greater future development.

Chris Richardson is head of chemicals, materials and energy at UK-headquartered consultancy Sagentia, specializing in working with clients in new business opportunity discovery. He has more than 20 years' experience in the materials science industry, with expertise in coating and printing processes.





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