Air Company's carbon conversion reactor, which turns captured carbon into consumer products like perfume, vodka and hand sanitizer. (Image: Air Company)
The global petrochemical industry continues to expand, adding to concerns that oil, gas, and coal are being consumed at an unsustainable level. Meanwhile, the green chemistry movement has already begun to introduce bio-based plastics, cleansers and other familiar consumer products that don't require fossil fuel feedstocks. Now, a new round of green chemistry innovation is going beyond common household products to decarbonize industrial processes, supply chains and fuels.
Fossil fuels are not only used for heat and energy, but also as the building blocks for plastics, chemicals and more. The field of petrochemicals includes compounds made from natural gas as well as petroleum. In some countries, notably China, coal is also used as a chemical building block.
Common household petrochemical products include synthetic fabrics, rubber and detergents, in addition to a wide range of fuels and plastic items.
Plastics are often cited as the main driver of petrochemical growth and pollution. New research by the firm Emergen, though, indicates that global automotive and pharmaceutical sectors have also become powerful growth factors.
“Petrochemicals are set to account for more than a third of the growth in world oil demand to 2030 and nearly half the growth to 2050,” the International Energy Agency warned in a widely cited 2018 report, which also forecast a rise in petrochemical demand for natural gas.
Similarly, Fortune Business Insights predicts the global petrochemicals market will experience strong growth in the coming years, reaching $886 billion by 2030, compared to around $628 billion today.
Notwithstanding this activity, signs of change are emerging. Rachel Carson’s influential 1962 book "Silent Spring" motivated new generations of 20th-century chemists to focus on sustainability. Those efforts culminated in the 12 principles for harm reduction outlined in the 1998 book "Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice" by John Warner and Paul Anastas.
The book did not stop the petrochemical industry, but it did lay the groundwork for change. "Green Chemistry" continues to guide the field today, and its full effect is beginning to emerge with new advances in molecular science.
The new wave of green chemistry replicates photosynthesis, the natural process by which plants create new molecules from carbon dioxide.
“We’re accelerating it and doing it in real time,” said Mahlet Garedew, innovation program manager at the Brooklyn-based chemistry startup Air Company. “Why don’t we start assembling these molecules at the molecular level and mimicking what nature is doing? This is the core of green chemistry. It’s the design of products and processes. That’s why this technology is exciting.”
The molecular approach is reflected in the six winners of the 2023 Green Chemistry Challenge, a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Among the awardees is the Texas firm Solugen. The company’s proprietary “Bioforge” enzyme-based platform reassembles sugars, air and carbon dioxide into plastics, construction materials and other products. The New Jersey company Modern Meadow's bio-based protein foam replaces petrochemical dyes, reducing water use by 95 percent and energy consumption by 75 percent.
The follow-on health and safety benefits of green chemistry are also illustrated by an award to the Georgia firm Captis Aire. The company captures compounds called terpenes from wood processing facilities and converts them to biofuels, fragrances and other products. “Currently these terpenes can be an air pollutant, an irritant to eyes, lungs and skin, and are commonly burned as waste which releases greenhouse gases,” the EPA notes.
Air Company was also included among the 2023 awardees for its trademarked “AirMade System” that recombines carbon dioxide and water into new forms. The award underscores how green chemistry can help support other elements of the bioeconomy.
The company launched in 2017 with two signature products, a vodka and a perfume, made with carbon from ethanol fermentation plants. The launch helped raise awareness about green chemistry's potential to impact a wide variety of industries, Garedew said. The company also produced hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic and even worked with NASA to convert carbon dioxide into sugars, with the aim of one day synthesizing food in space.
In the area of ethanol and biofuels alone, the potential for green chemistry is vast. U.S. ethanol producers, for example, are depending on new carbon capture and sequestration projects to cut their carbon footprint. However, new pipelines and sequestration proposals are encountering roadblocks, including the cancellation of a proposed 1,300-mile carbon pipeline for the U.S. Midwest.
A new McKinsey report also indicates that capture and sequestration is not an effective pathway to net zero. McKinsey advocates for a “recarbonization” of the biofuels and chemistry industries, using biomass and carbon from the atmosphere instead of fossil sources.
The AirMade System meets the recarbonization standard while raising the potential to avoid new pipelines. The modular, transportable system can be located at or near the point of carbon emissions. The system also includes water-sourced green hydrogen technology, powered by renewable energy.
This distributed-by-design business model eliminates the need for a centralized carbon sequestration facility. It creates the potential to deploy existing pipeline, road and rail infrastructure, and it enables ethanol producers to generate additional fuel from the same amount of biomass.
The company can use a variety of industrial emissions for carbon, but its main focus is currently on fuel from ethanol plant emissions and other bio-based sources. “Really the big impact is in chemistry and fuel industries, specifically aviation,” Garedew said.
Pressure on the petrochemical industry is beginning to rise from other sources. One example is the Beyond Petrochemicals initiative, launched in 2022 by Bloomberg Philanthropies and aimed at stopping the construction of new petrochemical plants in the U.S.
Academic resources are also gathering force. The new Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering at Yale University, for example, is a partnership with the United Nations to introduce green chemistry in key industries around the world, beginning with the replacement of hazardous materials in the textile and construction sectors.
The trade association American Chemistry Society co-sponsors the EPA's Green Chemistry program as part of its support for an industry-wide pivot away from petrochemicals and other hazardous materials. In contrast to past practice, the group now encourages its members to create “a new reality for chemistry and engineering” based on pollution prevention, waste reduction, resource preservation, and energy conservation.
The rising uproar over the toxic impacts of the “forever” chemical group PFAS indicates the American Chemistry Society has a lot of ground to make up. The field of green chemistry itself is also evolving, as advocates for the “sustainable chemistry” movement press for the inclusion of more holistic, long-term ecological goals.
Above all, chemists themselves are emerging as powerful change makers.
“By training I’m a biosystems engineer, and I worked in an organic chemistry lab on the bio-based side of green chemistry,” Garedew explains. “A lot of my Ph.D. work was promoting that, and thinking where we can implement the principles of green chemistry.”
“Innovation is always on the horizon,” she says. “There are so many things we can do with carbon dioxide.”
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.
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