28 October 2008 00:00 [Source: ICB]
Suppliers of chemicals to the building sector are being kept on their toes by consumers seeking products that are kind to the environment and help improve efficiency
Governments around the world are demanding ever-increasing environmental and sustainability standards from the construction industry. Concerns about climate change, combined with elevated fuel prices, are pushing energy efficiency to the top of the agenda for designers and builders of residential and commercial properties.
"We must reduce the environmental impact of the built environment if we are to have any chance of meeting demanding targets for carbon and other emissions," says John Denham, UK Secretary of State for the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. "Creating 'zero-carbon' buildings cost-effectively, and in the numbers required, will need innovative products, materials and processes."
With the introduction of new regulations and targets, including the UK government's plans for all new homes to be 'carbon neutral' by 2016, there is an increasing focus on the life-cycle impact of construction products and their constituents.
Chemical companies need to prove that their products are safe, says Jennifer Atlee, research director at US-based consultancy BuildingGreen. "People in the building industry are starting to look further and further down the chain, including the manufacturing process. The chemistry of the product is being looked at more carefully."
Producers are using product stewardship and life-cycle assessment programs to determine the environmental impact of their products. ICI Paints, part of Dutch-headquartered coatings and specialty chemical producer AkzoNobel, for example, has developed a life-cycle analysis tool that the company says reveals about 80% of the environmental impacts of any product during a short workshop. The company has used the tool to define projects to reduce the emissions profile of its Dulux paint throughout the complete life-cycle, from extraction and production of raw materials through manufacture and use to end-of-life disposal.
When assessing the risks associated with particular products, it is important to consider the big picture, Atlee stresses. For example, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) have been criticized by some for their mercury content but, she says, there is less mercury inside each bulb than would be emitted into the atmosphere by a coal-fired power station producing the extra electricity required by a traditional bulb. So using CFLs can theoretically reduce atmospheric mercury levels.
In Europe, the new Reach chemical regulations move the burden of responsibility to prove that a chemical is safe onto the producer or supplier. In the US, California is blazing a trail on chemical policy through its proposed green chemistry initiative, which is intended to reduce toxic substances by changing the way things are designed and manufactured.
Educating the public about the durability and sustainability of products is critical, says Lawrence Carbary, industry scientist at US silicones supplier Dow Corning. "Chemicals have a generally negative connotation in the general public, because of the media coverage of bad chemicals. But when you have a continuous education process, people are educated about what's good and what's bad."
Integrated design - which includes the parties involved in the building's construction, including the architect and engineer, from the initial stages - is essential for building an energy-efficient and sustainable building, says Atlee.
Most of the major aspects of making an energy-efficient and green building take place at the initial design stage, such as orienting the building to make the best use of daylight and natural ventilation, she explains. "There are tons of things you can do with design first, before you get to the product level."
Cutting the energy needed to operate buildings is the largest environmental challenge facing the construction industry, according to the UK Construction Products Association. An assessment of the energy used in an office building over 60 years by the UK Building Research Establishment (BRE) shows that the majority of energy use (about 85%) is consumed during the operational life of the building, whereas only about 6% is used in manufacturing the components.
The large areas of glazing used in commercial buildings make them less energy-efficient than residential buildings, notes Carbary, who works on silicon sealants and adhesives to weatherproof and glaze products in Dow Corning's construction business. Estimates of the energy used in commercial buildings in the West range between 17% and 40% of total energy consumption, he says.
Elevated energy prices and depleting natural resources have sharpened the focus on environmental issues. Despite the economic slump and slowdown in the overall housing industry, interest in green building design remains strong, and chemical companies have a vital role to play in helping to make buildings more energy efficient and safer places to live and work in.
NEW CATALYST BOOSTS SOLAR PROMISE
Researchers in the US have developed a new process for storing power, which could be a boon for the solar industry. The process centers on a new catalyst, consisting of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, which enables the splitting of water into its constituents: oxygen and hydrogen.
Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and extremely inefficient. The new system, developed by Daniel Nocera and Matthew Kanan at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), could enable homeowners to use their photovoltaic panels during the day to power their home, while also using the energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen for storage.
At night, the stored hydrogen and oxygen could be recombined using a fuel cell to generate power while the solar panels are inactive.
"This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," says Nocera. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon." The process, which works at room temperature, is inspired by photosynthesis in plants, Nocera says.
When electricity runs through the catalyst's electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced. Combined with another catalyst, such as platinum, that can produce hydrogen gas from water, the system can duplicate the water-splitting reaction that occurs during photosysnthesis.
The research, published in July in the journal Science, reflects the importance of advanced research in solar technology, says Eric Peeters, global executive director of Dow Corning Solar Solutions, part of US silicones supplier Dow Corning. "The opportunity that solar energy represents for the entire globe is tremendous, and it seems like every day we leap over another hurdle in the race for solar to be a sustainable energy option globally."
Solar silicon, used in photovoltaic panels, is one of Dow Corning's key products. The company says it has invested more than $2bn (€1.6bn) on research and development of materials for solar technology over the past three years.
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