Population growth presents great opportunities for the chemical industry

A crowded world

26 February 2010 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Philippa Jones/Brussels

Global population forecasts predict astonishing growth over the next few decades. That means great opportunities for the chemical industry

It is no secret that the world's population is growing. By 2050, more than 9bn people are forecast to be living on Earth, compared with around 6.8bn today.

These extra bodies will need to be fed and watered, and most policy makers agree this can't happen under a business-as-usual scenario. Many politicians around the world believe this growth - in addition to the associated challenges of dwindling landmass for food production, lower oil stocks and the threat of climate change - has to be tackled with more sustainable policies than those of the post-war years.

While the chemical industry has been considered by some as part of the problem, belching out pollution and greenhouse gases, it now wants to be seen as part of the solution. The European Petrochemical Association (EPCA) claims to be leading the way, making population growth its theme in 2010. Many chemical companies insist they have put the quest of sustainable development at the heart of their business strategy.

EPCA secretary general Cathy Demeestere says the objective of the association's "Nine billion people in 2050" program is "to position the chemical industry as an enabler for sustainable ­solutions." EPCA still has to define exactly what this means, a task it was due to discuss at its annual meeting working group late in February.

However, Demeestere says the impetus for the campaign came from the EPCA's annual meeting last October, when representatives from green lobby groups "suggested the chemical industry be less reactive and more proactive" to achieve its target as "an enabler of sustainable development." This, plus the fact that "recognized green activist [and] former vice-chancellor of Germany Joschka Fischer told us at the meeting that we already are part of the solution for sustainable development," sowed the seed for action.

Demeestere lists a whole gamut of areas where she believes the chemical ­industry can play an active role in ­preparing the world for an overpopulated future, ­including "access to drinkable water and food, health and decent housing, mobility, and developing tools for instantaneous communication and education via the internet." She says that "concrete solutions" will be discussed at this year's annual ­meeting in Budapest, Hungary, in October with panels of "economists, experts in food and water and representatives of BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China] countries."

Germany-based producer BASF agrees that there is huge potential for the chemical industry in this area. At the start of the year, Andreas Kreimeyer, member of the company's board of executive directors and research executive director, said BASF intended to maintain its research budget in 2010 at the "high level" of previous years with an overall target of €1.38bn ($1.87bn)to address "complex issues, including supplying a growing world population with water, food, energy or mobility."

According to Kreimeyer, "Our world is now facing enormous, unprecedented challenges [and] we will not be able to solve tomorrow's problems with yesterday's or today's concepts." He believes the challenges posed by the world's growing population can only be tackled "with new solutions based on ground-breaking innovations" to which chemistry will be making a "central contribution."

Speaking at a press conference in January, Kreimeyer highlighted a multitude of areas where BASF believes it can make a difference, including energy management, increasing agricultural yields through plant biotechnology and using nanotechnology to produce high-performance insulation.

In the field of energy management, Kreimeyer details the company's work on organic photovoltaics, asserting that "with a solar cell efficiency of 20%, the world's ­population could be supplied with sufficient energy by using less than 1% of the land surface." But he adds that "the widespread use of solar energy can only be ­competitive if the electricity production costs are ­similar to the costs of fossil and nuclear energy" and says BASF is on track to find a solution to this problem.

"Together with [German technology and engineering firm] Bosch and [Germany-based organic photovoltaics firm] Heliatek, we are developing new organic materials that will allow the competitive generation of alternative energy," says Kreimeyer, explaining that in contrast to silicon-based photovoltaics "organic photovoltaics also deliver a good power yield under non-optimal light conditions" and given their "flexible modular construction" are suitable for a wider range of uses. He admits that the technology is not yet ready to be ­commercialized and that "we still have some improving to do," but adds that he is confident the first organic photovoltaic products with BASF materials will be on the market in 2012.

As for nanotechnology for high-performance insulation, Kreimeyer says that if the 24m old residential buildings in Germany were retrofitted to a new standard, the country could cut carbon emissions by about 80m tonnes/year.

He suggests this could be achieved by the use of nanofoams, which offer similar reductions in energy consumption as ­current insulating materials, but are more suitable for the job because they are thinner than conventional materials and therefore more efficient and easier to use.

Meanwhile, in the field of plant biotechnology, Kreimeyer says that while "well-proven solutions such as fertilizers, crop protection agents and conventional plant breeding are indispensable on their own, [they] will not be able to guarantee the necessary yield increases" needed to feed 9bn human beings.

"We will not be able to solve tomorrow's problems with today's concepts"
Andreas Kreimeyer, member of the board, BASF
He is convinced that plant biotechnology is essential to meet the growing demand for agricultural products and says BASF continues to work with companies such as US seed and chemical giant Monsanto to "develop solutions for the production of crop plants with increased nutritional value, improved stress and drought tolerance and higher yields."

Compatriot chemical company Bayer is taking a similar approach to food production in the belief that "a second green revolution is needed." Friedrich Berschauer, chairman of Bayer CropScience's management board, told an audience at Green Week in Berlin in January that "all available instruments - chemical crop protection agents and seeds and innovative technologies" - should be applied to safeguard harvest yields and increase agricultural productivity. He said his division's annual research budget of €650m concentrated on developing such agents and technologies, in particular "new, future-oriented research projects in areas such as plant health and stress tolerance."

While it would be logical to assume that Euro Chlor, the European chlorine producers' organization, wants to play a role in ensuring a clean water supply for the world's growing population, communications manager Dirk Clotman insists chlorine has a contribution to make to sustainable development far beyond its tradition role as a disinfectant for water.

He explains how, for example, more than a third of the chlorine market is used in the manufacture of PVC and how the majority of pharmaceuticals contain or are manufactured using chlorine. He also notes that "half of crop protection agents are produced with a chlorinated substance," meaning that the industry will also help feed the world, and if this were not enough, Clotman adds energy as another key area where chlorine is touted to help the development of new products. "Somewhere in the process to make solar panels, a chlorinated compound is used," he says, emphasizing that glues used to stick propellers on wind turbines need chlorine chemistry.

Chemistry is present in nearly everything we see and do, so it is unsurprising that chemical firms are publicizing how they believe the industry holds the key to tackling population growth. Environmentalists may have provided the impetus to the EPCA to make the problem its hot topic for 2010, but the chemical industry now has to prove that it can provide solutions without creating new environmental problems for the future.

Just as chlorine has generally been rehabilitated as a vital chemical, the industry as a whole now has to prove its worth as an aid to sustainable development.

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By: Philippa Jones
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