Fossil fuels don’t just keep our motors running. They don’t just heat our homes. They form the basis of many of our everyday products.
Problem is, fossil carbon is cheap and reliable. Nevertheless, bit by bit, many companies are weaning themselves off petrochemical feedstocks.
For Unilever, that means dishwasher liquids with cleaning agents made from fermented sugar. For Croda, it means using corn to create a bio-ethylene oxide that can replace some surfactants in its personal care products.
So, what other moves have organisations made lately to create greener feedstocks?
1. Castor seed building blocks
Arkema is using castor seed in a huge range of products.
Arkema has received certification for its castor seed-based materials in products that include cosmetics, fragrances, lubricants, and pharmaceuticals.
The Paris-based speciality materials company says it will use castor seed for 100% of its monomer, polymer, and oleochemical production in its plant in Singapore.
Part of the problem with developing green feedstocks is making them financially viable and resilient. Growing these feedstocks sustainably is also important. For example, palm oil contains many products that make it a useful feedstock for those in the chemicals industry, but the way it is farmed, and its effect on the soil, are routinely criticised.
To that end, Arkema says that 13,300 hectares used to grow its crops (primarily in Western India) are sustainably farmed under the Sustainable Castor Caring for Environmental and Social Standards code.
2. Nutrient recovery
Unused nutrients from agriculture could be turned into biofertiliser.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) is taking part in a project with Northwest Florida Water Management District and May Nursery that will demonstrate nutrient recovery technology.
According to the US EPA, the aforementioned parties will demonstrate how unused nutrients from agriculture can be captured and turned into a biofertiliser that will help farmers along the way to more circular agricultural processes.
>> How do we make a large-scale move to greener feedstocks? Several of SCI’s Corporate Partners weighed in on the issue.
3. An alternative to plastic wrapping
Thyme oil’s antimicrobial properties could help extend the shelf life of fresh food.
Researchers at Rutgers and Harvard have created a plant-based spray coating for fresh food packaging, which they believe could reduce our reliance on petroleum-based packaging.
The researchers liken their technology to the webs that shoot from Spider-Man’s wrist. Their stringy material is spun from a hair-dryer-like heating device that is shrink-wrapped over foods as diverse as avocado and sirloin steak.
Their biopolymer contains natural antimicrobial agents – thyme oil, citric acid and nisin – to fight spoilage. The wrapping can also be easily rinsed off and degrades in the soil within three days.
4. Degraded by the light
North Dakota researchers have developed a plastic that degrades in a wavelength of light not contained in the spectrum of sunlight on earth.
Biodegradation is a prickly issue. Many are sceptical about the way biodegradable plastic bags interact with the natural environment, and others argue that we should focus on upcycling products rather than downcycling them.
That’s partly what makes a new bio-based vanillin plastic so interesting. A team of US researchers from the Center for Photochemical Sciences, Bowling Green State University, and North Dakota State University has created lignin-based polymers that degrade when exposed to light of a specific wavelength – a wavelength not contained in the spectrum of sunlight that reaches the earth.
The result of this, they claim, is that up to 60% of the monomers could be polymerised again with no loss of quality. So, in theory light-triggered degradation could make it much easier to re-use these materials.
>> Natural materials, such as hemp, are becoming ever more important. So, what makes it so special?
Re-using waste materials and converting them into chemicals will help us create a closed-loop system. Ahead of the SCI Engineering Biology symposium on 23 May, Martin Hayes, Biotechnology Lead at Johnson Matthey, spoke about some exciting approaches and the challenges involved in making the low-carbon transition.
The journey to Net Zero is well underway, with a number of countries already committed to Net Zero by 2050. To achieve this ambitious goal, companies and governments must take a new approach to waste, shifting from linear processing to a circular model.
This involves recycling and reusing products to create a closed-loop system that uses fewer resources and reduces waste, pollution and carbon emissions. As we journey towards Net Zero, these ‘circularity’ principles are increasingly embedded in the research and design of products.
As a leader in sustainable technologies, Johnson Matthey (JM) is striving to help the chemical industry transition. Martin Hayes, Biotechnology Lead, explains: ‘More and more companies are starting to move away from linear chemical processes to circular ones, which is definitely a step in the right direction.
‘They’re looking at how the waste from chemical processes may be the source for biological processes. Biological entities such as enzymes or organisms can even recover precious metals from waste streams, maximising value while reducing waste.’
>> How are young chemists tackling climate change? Read more in our COP26 review.
In other cases, gas fermentation can upgrade waste products, particularly carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and convert them into chemicals. Hayes explains: ‘In this instance JM joins biology and chemistry to get the desired end product without affecting the customer experience, but making the process much cleaner.’
Fermented food waste could be converted into chemical building blocks.
Food waste is another contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. A circular approach may consider fermenting food waste to convert it into useful chemical building blocks. ‘What is valuable about this is that these chemicals are not produced from virgin fossil material,’ he adds.
To realise the potential in these technologies and new businesses, it’s important to take a collaborative approach and for multi-disciplinary teams to work together. Hayes continues: ‘We know that getting the biology to the end product requires engineers, chemists, microbiologists, and biochemists – different scientists working together with commercial expertise to make a product that is sustainable, has a low environmental footprint, and is still profitable.
‘We work collaboratively in partnership because we recognise we need to develop these solutions in ways that reflect the needs of each client and the broader society.’
But the scale of the issue shouldn’t be underestimated. On the one hand, those biological entities will require engineering to become efficient catalysts, working selectively with less-than-ideal feedstocks under demanding reaction conditions. On the other hand, scaling up and optimising processes such as fermentation can be resource intensive and involve large volumes.#
Johnson Matthey will be Platinum sponsors for the upcoming Engineering Biology symposium | Editorial image credit: Casimiro PT / Shutterstock
This type of catalyst customisation and process intensification calls for a multi-disciplinary team: bioinformaticians, molecular biologists, chemists and chemical engineers working together.
While the UK leads in renewable technologies, it is also important to think in terms of connected systems rather than isolated applications of technology. That broader perspective in a circular system will get us towards Net Zero and is embodied by the SCI’s symposium on Engineering Biology with which JM is proud to be associated as a (fittingly) Platinum sponsor. This is a topic which is entirely consistent with, and supportive of, JM’s vision of a cleaner, healthier world.
>> Sign up here for SCI's Engineering Biology – applications for chemistry-using business on 23 May.
>> How do we move to non-fossil fuel feedstocks? Here’s our report on the Parliamentary & Scientific Committee Discussion Meeting on 28 March.
Sarah Davidson has made impressive strides in a short space of time. She has risen to Group Sustainability Coordinator for global Research and Technology at speciality chemicals firm Croda and won the Young Ambassador Award at this year’s Chemical Industry Awards.
In the first blog in our Women in Chemistry series, we caught up with Sarah for a chat on embedding sustainability in the workplace, the need for more diversity in senior roles, and the best bit of advice she received.
Tell us about your career to date.
I loved chemistry at school, so I started off by doing a Master’s in Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. During the course I did a placement year, which was my first taste of working in industry. Once I finished my degree, I was torn between staying in academia and doing a PhD or going into industry. I chose to go into industry because I had enjoyed my placement year so much and saw where I could make an impact.
I was accepted onto Croda’s Graduate Development programme, where I had three placements around the business. Croda is a speciality chemicals company, so my placements included working as an applications scientist and synthetic chemist. However, it was my placement working with the Sustainability team that I loved the most.
After the Grad Scheme I became Group Sustainability Coordinator for Global R&D. This combined my experience in R&D and sustainability in a brand role that didn’t exist in Croda before. This role allows me to use my technical knowledge and understanding of the way the global team works to enable those responsible for Croda’s new product innovations to include sustainability as an integral pillar in new product development.
What does your day-to-day role involve?
In my role, my main focus is on getting our scientists to think about sustainability during product and process development. At a fundamental level this requires me to change their mindsets around sustainability, getting them to see it is important to what we do and understand what it means.
To do this, I have developed a number of tools including checklists, clearly defined procedures and training documents. I have been working to get these new procedures adopted over the global R&D team by fitting them into existing protocols. Another part of my role is to support our corporate targets and I am part of a number of working groups to do this.
One working group looks at how we define a consistent methodology for Life Cycle Assessments or LCA. In this group I have been doing research to understand the current methods around LCA, and what our customers want in terms of sustainability data. I also help gather data to show where we are up to with these goals, so we understand what actions we need to take to move forward. On a day-to-day basis I will have meetings to discuss the projects I am involved in, conduct research and reach out to other teams and functions to see what they are working on too.
Which aspects of your job motivate you most?
For me sustainability is the future, not only for the chemical industry but for the world. Knowing that I am having a positive impact on sustainability in my role is what motivates me the most. I try to live a sustainable life, and what I do at work is just an extension of that.
What personal challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
To embed sustainability into our ways of working, I need to change people’s mindsets, and subsequently their behaviour. Seeing this change in people is incredibly rewarding. However, it is also one of the biggest challenges. Some of our teams have been working in the same roles for decades without any change. So, it is my job to make these changes easier for them to adopt and persuade them of the benefits in doing so. To overcome this challenge, I have had to work on my influencing skills and know what will work with the audience I am speaking to.
What is the greatest future challenge for people in your industry and how could this be addressed.
Sustainability, and addressing the issues we face as a result of climate change, are some of the biggest challenges we will face as an industry. We are in a lucky position that we can achieve a competitive advantage with sustainability, but our main goal is to protect our planet. This gives us a big opportunity for collaboration where we may not have had one before. I think we can only solve this challenge by collaborating across the supply chain, across country borders, and between industry and academia.
>> Not everyone takes the standard career path into chemistry. Take a read of Claudio Laurenco’s unusual, inspiring story.
Which mentors have helped you along the way and how did they make a difference?
I feel like I have a long list of mentors and am very lucky to be able to call on so many people for advice. The best thing I have learnt from them is to pursue what I enjoy most, as people will be able to see my passion. This will help me move forward in my career. Having mentors who have confidence in me and my ability has helped me build my own confidence, something which I can lack from time to time. My mentors are great sounding boards for ideas, whether that is to do with things I want to try in my job or on the direction of my career.
What is the current state of play within your sector with respect to equality, diversity, and inclusion – and is enough being done to attract and retain diverse talent?
I don’t think so. We need to do more to attract and retain diverse talent. We seem to be relatively diverse and inclusive at an academic level, which disappears in industry. There must be a reason for this. There may be bias within recruitment processes, or within job descriptions for senior roles, which means there is less diversity as you move up in organisations. We need to make sure that there are equal opportunities within industry for everyone and make sure everyone has a path to progression that works for them.
Is there any advice you would give to young professionals starting out in your area, especially young women?
Understand where you are different and use that as your advantage. Everyone has a unique lived experience that they bring with them into all situations. As women we have a different perspective to men. This doesn’t mean it is less valuable, it is just different. When you feel like you are in a minority as a woman, or are not being listened to, it is important to remember that our opinions are equal regardless of our background, gender or ethnicity. You have the same right to share your views, as the majority do theirs.
>> We’re always keen to hear from women who are making a real difference in chemistry. If you know someone who you think we should cover, please get in touch with us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.