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.