The study “Identification of Priority Topics in the Field of Sustainable Chemistry” focuses on innovations in some of the important areas of production and application of chemicals. Rather than trying to assess sustainability of the huge amount of process and product innovations in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, developments have been identified that have the potential to solve or mitigate grand societal challenges such as health, food security, secure, clean and efficient energy, secure supply of clean water, climate change etc.
Prioritisation of the numerous research and innovation efforts in the various chemical sectors requires careful assessment of sustainability via LCA studies and other holistic assessment methods to investigate impacts of a new process or product. Novel, highly innovative industry fields or sectors provide the opportunity of introducing sustainable thinking early on and in the whole value chain. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are important criteria for prioritisation of actions.
The question, which innovations belong to “sustainable chemistry” can only be answered for a more or less representative example. “Thermal building insulation” was chosen because of its enormous importance for energy efficiency and climate protection on one hand and because of the diversity of chemicals and materials used in this field. The innovations show different ecological goals and refer to various stages in the life cycle. This underlines the difficulty in assessing materials in the context of sustainable chemistry. To assess sustainability, a set of quantifiable indicators (Parameters for Sustainable Chemistry – PSC) developed in a research project of the German Environment Agency has been used. In addition, a number of objectives have been chosen from the SDGs which are directly connected to sustainable chemistry or to objectives which are considerably influenced by the use of chemicals, e.g. health issues, energy efficiency, waste prevention. Only some of the (mostly substance-related) PSC indicators could be used for the assessment of insulating materials. Relative estimates were made, because data were not available or not comparable. As to the objectives derived from the SDGs, qualitative assessments and/or relative evaluations (solution A is better than solution B…) were carried out. One may conclude from this example
- that a holistic assessment is lacking of “sustainable chemistry indicators” to be defined and – at best – quantified
- that a number of innovative approaches yield more sustainable solutions than materials or processes used up to now with respect to several objectives derived from the SDGs
- that also in this case, their contribution to other objectives cannot be assessed or could also be negative
- that specific conditions related to the building (e.g. local climate, main construction material) influence the results of the assessment.
In a second assessment example, different production routes for acrylic acid as target product, based on different feedstock have been investigated, again using the PSC. Generally, the biomass routes are advantageous compared to fossil routes in terms of GHG emissions, but also characterised by a substantially higher energy demand due to lower overall process efficiency. Sucrose and starch biomass also provide potential food and feed competition. Biomass utilisation efficiency for the production of some precursor molecules such as ethylene or propylene can be very low, i.e. several tons of biomass are required to produce a ton of product. In this sense it is advised not only to perform a cradle to gate LCA for one given route, but to also compare different utilisation routes for a given feedstock to identify the best options. This is particularly recommended for feedstock of limited availability, such as native biomass.
Due to the often highly divergent requirements of various industrial sectors, the search for innovations was focused on specific fields of application, respectively the sectors of the chemical industry, including “petrochemicals and base chemicals”, “polymers”, “agrochemicals (pesticides)”, “fertilizers”, “coatings, dyes, pigments and adhesives”, “detergents, cleaning agents and personal care products”, “chemical fibres”, “construction chemistry”, “pharmaceuticals” and “nanomaterials”.
The complete study will be available after the ISC3 conference. Publication will be announced in the Newsletter!