Using Renewable Raw Materials

OVERVIEW

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, coatings, adhesives, sealants, building materials, automotive components, packaging, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, insulation, medical equipment, optical components, cleaning agents, furnishings, and many others. The building blocks, or “feedstocks” have high energy content and are currently obtained from the same source (crude oil) as transportation and heating fuels. Recent concern about the sustainability of petroleum has inspired research into alternative feedstocks, including alternative fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, and potentially renewable feedstocks derived from biomass. To avoid competing with food uses, the ultimate goal of this research is to mobilize the components of lignocellulosic biomass. The US Department of Energy estimates that at least a billion tons could be available annually in the US to meet future demand. The vision for the future involves replacing petroleum refineries with “bio-refineries”, situated in agricultural areas and surrounded by the land on which the feedstocks are grown. However, concerns about the challenges of transporting and storing perishable raw biomass, the enormous water requirements for processing, and land use changes incurred when arable areas are converted to fuel and chemical production, have raised important questions about how sustainable such scenarios truly are. New reactions and separations for continuous (not batch) processing will be required to make these processes much more efficient and versatile, especially in operations much smaller than typical world-scale petrochemical plants.

CHEMICAL INDUSTRY SUSTAINABILITY

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...

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...

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...

REDUCING DEPENDENCE ON CRITICAL METALS AND MINERALS

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...

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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