Chemistry for Sustainability
EXPERT OPINION ARTICLE BY:
Executive Director, Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences,
Specialty chemicals broadly represent chemicals that exert a specific function for well-defined applications. Quite often they are custom-made with higher value add than commodities. The global specialty chemicals market is predicted to reach US$900.51 billion in 2024, progressing at a CAGR of 6.40% over the period 2020-2024 (1) – not taking into account potential economic downturns from the pandemic situation, which started in 2020. The key drivers for growth are the ongoing trends of a growing and ageing population as well as increased urbanization, where the demand for specialty chemicals is tied closely with those for medicines, energy, housing materials and so on. Chemicals contributed approximately 20% to Singapore’s manufacturing output in 2020 and thus are an important factor for Singapore’s economy (2).
There have been several studies on the future of (specialty) chemicals (3-5). Not surprisingly, a common theme is sustainability. While sustainability has been a driver for the chemical industry for several decades, its increased importance cannot be better underlined than by a multinational specialty chemicals company’s recent suggestion to its shareholders to link a portion of the variable compensation of the executive board to the reduction of greenhouse gases. The key new drivers of this are changing consumer demands, sustainable investments in capital markets with an increased focus on ESG (environmental, social, and governance) factors as well as employees’ (“generation Z”) expectations of their employers. Regulatory pressures and industrial or governmental commitments to reach carbon neutrality (more than 110 countries have pledged to do so by 2050, some even earlier; China by 2060) also plays a part.
The path to sustainability
Sustainability is not only about having “greener” solutions. Ultimately, all new processes, products or services have to be economically viable and socially acceptable. It is about finding answers to the “triple bottom line” (6), a commonly known sustainability framework to understand the impact of a company or organisation on People (employees, customers, suppliers, communities etc.), Planet (environment, use of resources, waste generation etc.), and Profit (local/national economy, generating jobs, taxes, innovation etc.). However, this concept has led to some misinterpretation – especially on the aspect of profit, and seen as too restrictive when taken to refer largely to the profit of a company. In 2015, the UN, as part of the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), delivered a better description of the positive impact that our activities should generate with the theme People, Planet and Prosperity (which is to “ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social, and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature”). For completeness’ sake, the UN added two more “P”s – Peace and Partnerships - clearly essential aspects for a more sustainable world.
Innovation in the chemical industry
While many chemical products are already essential to low-carbon solutions, chemical production is both energy and CO2-intensive. A “carbon-free” chemical industry is not possible, as most products are carbon-based – as are our lives. Nevertheless, the chemical industry can become carbon-neutral (5). Yet the well-established continuous efficiency improvements in processes and energy consumption will not be sufficient. The decisive impact will only be achieved with the utilisation of competitively priced, renewable energy (electricity) and by developing breakthrough technologies with a reduced carbon footprint. Examples would be methane pyrolysis for CO2-free hydrogen generation or the use of CO2 as a raw material for producing olefins and kerosene. Given the complexity of the challenge, partnerships and efficient innovation ecosystems spanning across industries and disciplines are the keys to success.
Singapore is well positioned, given the proximity of leading universities, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and multiple industrial sectors, many equipped with corporate research labs. To better coordinate such interdisciplinary approaches and bring together different competences, A*STAR has formed horizontal technology programme offices (HTPO), with one dedicated to Urban and Green Technologies (UGT). Its activities range from designing circular polymers, waste valorization, low-carbon energy sources, carbon capture and use technologies, new approaches in test-bedding, and alternative, renewable carbon sources. For example, A*STAR’s CO2 mineralisation technology targets to use waste materials such as incinerator bottom ash (IBA), recycled concrete aggregates (RCA), and natural minerals to convert large amounts of CO2 into Alternative Sand, which could be used for building and construction purposes, as well as land reclamation and the construction of sea walls. A catalytic process, co-developed by A*STAR’s Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES) and IHI Corporation helps to convert carbon dioxide emissions into methane. Further studies conducted are the production of fuels and other chemicals from CO2 under industrially relevant high-pressure conditions, making use of ICES’ high pressure, continuous flow facility.
Whatever we do and however we define sustainability, in a nutshell it means this: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The chemical industry is part of the solution.
References: 1. Global Specialty Chemicals Market (by Type and Region): Insights & Forecast with Potential Impact of COVID-19 (2020-2024), Research and Markets 2. Manufacturing Output in Manufacturing by Industry, 2020, Depart of Statistics Singapore (https://www.singstat.gov.sg/find-data/search-by-theme/industry/manufacturing/latest-data) 3. Five pictures of the future of specialty chemicals, Evonik Industries AG 4. The Chemical Industry 2040, Deloitte 5. Roadmap Chemistry 2050, German Chemical Industry Association (VCI) 6. John Elkington, 1994
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