What Sustainability Means to a Chemist

A group of Ph.D. students at the University of Nottingham have recently set up a forum for early career researchers studying sustainability (in any of its forms or guises). The Sustainability Research Network, as it has been called, had its launch event on 23rd May, which, pleasingly, was attended by researchers from across the sciences, engineering and the humanities. What was clear from discussions with others at the event is that sustainability has a number of different meanings dependent on a person’s background or research expertise. If the Network succeeds and grows, bridging the gaps between these different meanings and improving awareness of the varied approaches towards sustainability may be one of its bigger achievements. This post is a quick summary of my thoughts, as chemist, from a group activity during the day aimed at discovering what sustainability meant to those attending the event.

Chemistry may not be immediately associated with sustainability, green-thinking or creating long-lasting benefits to the environment but the chemical industry is critical for value and supply chains in many sectors of the economy (see Figure on page 2 of this report). It is through chemistry that the Earth’s natural resources are transformed into the useful products that we use in day-to-day life. If we are to move towards a more sustainable future then chemistry has to have a big role to play.

There are two aspects, interlinked, to thinking about sustainable chemistry. One is the aforementioned capability of the chemical industry to develop the technologies, materials and molecules needed for a sustainable future. The other is making chemistry itself more sustainable, which has developed from the philosophy of Green Chemistry and its twelve guiding principles.  Clearly, achieving the latter will help with the former.

So, in what practical ways can chemistry, and the downstream economies that rely upon it, be made more sustainable?
Raw materials. Many chemicals are derived from oil, not only making them non-renewable but also fixing their costs to oil’s rising and volatile price. Replacing oil with biomass is the long term goal, provided the biomass can be converted cheaply and efficiently to the necessary chemicals and that there is no conflict around land use for food supply. Perhaps even more exciting is the possibility of converting captured carbon dioxide back into useful chemicals or fuels. Beyond petrochemicals, there is growing concern surrounding many inorganic materials and metals, key for the electronics and digital industries, whose supplies are increasingly scarce or restricted. It may become necessary to find alternative technologies that use more abundant materials, or ensure what is already used is reclaimed and recycled.
Energy & process efficiency. The chemical industry is energy intensive due to the need to heat, cool, mix and transport huge volumes of liquids, gases and solids. Although energy savings are being continuously made, further improvements to existing chemical processes are increasingly difficult. Rather than incrementally improving current methods, completely new sustainable processes are required but implementing them takes time as they prove both their technical and economic viability.
Minimise waste and hazards. From poorly understood long-term health effects to the clear and present danger of an explosion or chemical leak, there are many dangers associated with the chemical industry. It is a fantasy to suggest that all toxic chemicals can be replaced, but with the design of new chemical processes comes the opportunity to minimise risk and prevent exposure to people and the environment.

It is crucial that chemistry meets these challenges head on, not only to make the chemicals we already use sustainable but because of its role in designing and supporting new technologies necessary for our future. Materials chemistry is important in making devices for generating and storing energy, such as solar cells and batteries, and it is the basis of the telecommunications and digital industries. Synthetic chemistry will make the fertilisers and drugs to feed and medicate the world’s growing and ageing population, while chemical understanding helps modify plants and other living organisms for our benefit. Future buildings and methods of transport will all be developed in part thanks to chemical discoveries. But chemists cannot and will not do this alone and, as was clear from the Sustainable Research Network launch event, creating a sustainable future for everyone has to involve and engage people from all backgrounds.

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8 Responses to What Sustainability Means to a Chemist

  1. Lynn says:

    Excellent initiative. At the upcoming ACS-GCI conference in Washington in a few weeks I will be chairing a session on Catalysing the Adoption of Green Chemistry – What Works. I have been collecting responses to a survey on what factors are perceived to be the most important to advancing sustainable innovation/green chemistry and will present it in that session. It might provoke some interesting dialogue in your network!

  2. Peter says:

    Very nice summary. As a chemist who retired several years ago, I only briefly encountered the word ‘sustainability’ at the very end of my career. Now, as a consultant, I try to keep up with currents trends so a summary article like this is very helpful to my overall thinking in the field of chemistry.

    • Ali TT says:

      Thank you Peter, I’m glad this information was of use. I work with researchers in the green/sustainable chemical area so let me know if you need any more information. Given time, I will post similar blogs perhaps exploring themes in more detail as well.

  3. Sarah says:

    Fantastic post. It looks like the event really encouraged you to reflect on the inter-disciplinary nature of sustainability research. Really pleased that you are a part of the network and I look forward to meeting you soon!

  4. An excellent initiative and objective! Sustainability is, rightly so, becoming a greater focal point and in order to achieve a step change, new thinking and multi-disciplinary approaches need to be adopted. There are many synergies with the Dial-a-Molecule EPSRC Grand Challenge and its long term vision to make molecules in a cost and time efficient manner using sustainable processes and feedstocks.
    Many of the aspects touched on require a change in mindset and it is encouraging to see that the next generation is realising the opportunities and most importantly is prepared to push the agenda along. There may well be scope to drive things forward together and I would be most interested to hear further views.

  5. andyextance says:

    With reference to “Replacing oil with biomass is the long term goal”, I guess this is a sustainability question in itself? For example, if food crops are displaced to do that, is that sustainable? Obviously converting what would otherwise be waste to chemicals is a great idea – but is that enough to replace all petrochemicals? I don’t have any numbers to hand, but my sense is that petrochemicals will remain important chemical feedstocks for a long time to come. We may need to think very carefully over to what degree differing biomass feedstocks are truly sustainable.

    • Ali TT says:

      Agreed. Not only can biomass conflict with food production but we’re also seeing destruction of natural habitat to make way for, e.g. palm oil plantations in SE Asia. The intervention of shale gas and other unconventional petrochem sources also presents a serious challenge to any proposed biomass-to-chemical supply chain. Such routes also have to compete with the biodiesel industry, although the generation of higher value chemical products may make biorefining more economically viable.

      I think replacing the existing petrochem routes to our everyday chemicals with wholly bio-based ones will be a long process involving piece meal take up of new technologies. Rather than one source of nearly all our raw materials, we will end up with a wide variety- from food wastes to the aforementioned palm oil plantations. This will bring its own set of risks to the economic and environmental viability of the chemical industry, particularly if supply chains become volatile based upon, e.g. climate or the decisions of farmers. What is certain is that at some point probably in the next 50-150 years we will not have enough fossil fuels to provide both our energy and chemical needs. Three options as I see it- switch to biomass, start converting CO2 to chemicals or move from fossil-fuel energy to wholly renewable liberating said fossil fuels for our chemical industry.

      I’ve just been at a Green Chemistry conference and will write this up in a new blog post this week which will explore some of these themes and others. Thanks for your comment.

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