CHEMICAL INDUSTRY SUSTAINABILITY

OVERVIEW

The US chemical industry is a cornerstone of American manufacturing, and the scale of chemical production is immense. The chemical industry produces commodities (large-volume, low-cost basic organic building blocks, such as ethylene, methanol, etc., as well as inorganics such as ammonia and sulfuric acid), fine and specialty chemicals (smaller volume, higher-cost products such as pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, coatings, pigments, etc.) and a wide variety of structural and functional materials including polymers, glasses, ceramics, composites, and catalysts. Indeed, the chemical industry is involved in 96 % of all manufactured products. US chemical shipments total 850 million tons annually, or 2.7 tons per person per year. The development and production of chemicals contributes 25 % of our GDP; at 12 % of US exports, it is the largest exporting sector in the country. Nearly 800,000 Americans are directly employed in the chemical industry, and each of their chemistry jobs creates 7.6 chemistry-dependent jobs in sectors such as health care, durable and non-durable goods, construction, and mining. Furthermore, the average annual salary of US employees in the chemical industry exceeds the average US manufacturing wage by more than 40 %. Overall, the industry is responsible for 4.2 million American jobs, either directly or indirectly. California has over 76,000 chemistry jobs, representing $8.5 billion in wages (with an additional $250 billion in wages in chemistry-dependent industries).
 

A sustainable chemical enterprise must simultaneously ensure the reliable and sustainable sourcing of its raw materials; conduct efficient and highly selective chemical synthesis and separations; avoid hazardous reagents and intermediates wherever possible; understand the environmental impact of discarded products, and design for (chemical) recycling. Some strategies include optimizing chemical processing; discovering Earth-abundant metal replacements for rare metals used in catalysis; inventing catalysts to unlock the chemical constituents in biomass; designing materials that are recyclable and are not harmful when released into the environment; and acquiring tools to assess the relative sustainability of alternative pathways and materials. Although such an integrated approach has yet to be achieved, the motivation is large and growing.

economics of new technologies.

INTEGRATING PHYSICAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCE

Replacement of conventional technologies by more sustainable versions is by no means automatic or rapid. New approaches must be cost-competitive; in manufacturing, this often means considering large existing capital investments, as well as supply risks. Changing or uncertain regulatory...

GLOBAL

FOOD SECURITY

In the 20th century, the invention of the Haber-Bosch process for converting atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, together with the Green Revolution that dramatically improved agricultural yields, eliminated natural limits on bioavailable nitrogen and enabled an expansion...

REDUCING DEPENDENCE ON CRITICAL METALS AND MATERIALS

The precious metals (Ru, Rh, Pd, Os, Ir, Pt) make highly effective catalysts in a wide range of chemical reactions, due to their readiness to change oxidation states and their reluctance to form recalcitrant oxides. Unfortunately, they are also some of the least abundant elements in the Earth’s crust...

CONSERVING ENERGY

AND FRESH WATER

Many chemical industry practices are highly energy- and water-intensive. For example, the Haber-Bosch process (described above), which produces 500 million tons of ammonia-based fertilizer annually, consumes 1-2 % of the entire world energy supply. Light olefins (ethylene and propylene) are...

USING RENEWABLE RAW MATERIALS

The vast majority of synthetic carbon-based materials are currently made from a handful of petroleum-derived building blocks, including ethylene, propylene, butenes, benzene, toluene, xylene and methanol. These components are converted, using chemistry, into polymers...

REDUCING RISK THROUGHOUT THE SUPPLY CHAIN

Reduced risk of exposure and minimal environmental toxicity are important dimensions of sustainable chemistry. Cradle-to-grave life cycle assessments and fate and transport studies must be employed to quantify potential emissions of chemicals at different life cycle stages...

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