Reducing Risk

OVERVIEW

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, pathways through the environment, and likely exposure concentrations. The safety of chemical processing can be increased through substitution of hazardous/toxic components by less dangerous ones, just-in-time production to minimize transport and storage of unsubstitutable reactants/intermediates, and targeted design based on knowledge of the solubility, mobility and bioavailability of products. Life-cycle thinking often reveals trade-offs between and sometimes even within environmental, social and economic objectives. For example, thin film photovoltaics reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions while consuming some of the earth’s most exotic metal resources. Reducing fossil energy use and acid emissions by light-weighting motor vehicles, using H2 as an alternative fuel, and decreasing the sulfur content of petroleum, requires alloys and catalysts based on cobalt, whose extraction in Central Africa has fueled regional armed conflicts for decades. Understanding the trade-offs between various environmental, social and economic objectives is critical in the sustainable design of materials and products.

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...

CONSERVING ENERGY AND FRESHWATER

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) ...

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