2019 has been declared by UNESCO as the Year of the Periodic Table. To celebrate, we are releasing a series of blogs about our favourite elements and their importance to the chemical industry. Today’s blog focuses on sodium and its role in the next series of innovative nuclear energy systems.
Sodium; the sixth most abundant element on the planet is being considered as a crucial part of nuclear reactors. Implementing new safety levels in reactors is crucial as governments are looking for environmentally friendly, risk-free and financially viable reactors. Therefore, ensuring new safety levels is a main challenge that is being tackled by many industries and projects.
In the wake of Fukushima, several European nations and a number of U.S plants have shut down and switched off their ageing reactors in order to eliminate risk and safety hazards.
The sodium- cooled fast reactor (SFR), a concept pioneered in the 1950s in the U.S, is one of the nuclear reactors developed to operate at higher temperatures than today’s reactors and seems to be the viable nuclear reactor model. The SFR’s main advantage is that it can burn unwanted byproducts including uranium, reducing the need for storage. In the long run, this is deemed cost-competitive as it can produce power without having to use new natural uranium.
Nuclear reactor. Source: Hallowhalls
However, using sodium also presents challenges. When sodium comes into contact with air, it burns and when it is mixed with water, it is explosive. To prevent sodium from mixing with water, nitrogen - driven turbines are in the process of being designed as a solution to this problem.
A European Horizon 2020 Project, ESFR-SMART project (European Sodium Fast Reactor Safety Measures Assessment and Research Tools), launched in September 2017, aims to improve the safety of Generation-IV Sodium Fast Reactors (SFR). This project hopes to prove the safety of new reactors and secure its future role in Europe. The new reactor is designed to be able to reprocess its own waste, act more reliably in operation, more environmentally friendly and more affordable. It is hoped that this reactor will be considered as one of the SFR options by Generation IV International Forum (GIF), who are focused on finding new reactors with safety, reliability and sustainability as just some of their main priorities.
European Horizon. Source: artjazz
Globally, the SFR is deemed an attractive energy source, and developments are ongoing, endeavouring to meet the future energy demands in a cost-competitive way.
‘Biodegradable plastics have become more cost-competitive with petroleum-based plastics and the demand is growing significantly, particularly in Western Europe, where environmental regulations are the strictest,’ says Marifaith Hackett, director of specialty chemicals research at analysts IHS Markit. The current market value of biodegradable plastics is set to exceed $1.1bn in 2018, but could reach $1.7bn by 2023, according to IHS Markit’s new report.
In 2018, the report finds that global demand for these polymers is 360,000t, but forecasts an average annual growth rate of 9% for the five years to 2023 – equivalent to a volume increase of more than 50%. Western Europe holds the largest share (55%) of the global market, followed by Asia, and Australia and New Zealand (25%), then North America (19%).
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In another report released in May 2018, the US Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) was similarly optimistic, finding that the bioplastics sector (biodegradables made from biological substances) is at ‘a growth cycle stage’. It predicts the US sector will outpace the US economy as a whole by attracting new investments and entrants, while also bringing new products and manufacturing technologies to make bioplastics ‘more competitive and dynamic’.
As bioplastics product applications continue to expand, the dynamics of industry growth will continue to shift, the report notes. Presently, packaging is the largest market segment at 37%, followed by bottles at 32%. Changes in consumer behaviour are expected to be a significant driver.
Many countries, including China and the UK, have introduced plastic waste bans to tackle the problem. Image: Pixabay
Changes in US tax policy, particularly the full expensing of capital expenditure, should support R&D in bioplastics,’ says Perc Pineda, chief economist at PLASTICS. ‘The overall low cost of energy in the US complements nicely with R&D activities and manufacturing, which generates a stable supply of innovative bioplastic products.’ He points, for example, to efforts by companies and collaborations to develop and launch, at commercial scale, a 100% bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle as a case in point. Most PET bottles currently contain around 30% bio-based material.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in July 2018 that onerous EU regulations for GMOs should also be applied to gene edited crops. The ECJ noted that older technologies to generate mutants, such as chemicals or radiation, were exempt from the 2001 GMO directive, but all other mutated crops should be regarded as GMOs. Since gene editing does not involve foreign DNA, most plant scientists had expected it to escape GMO regulations.
‘We didn’t expect the ruling to be so black and white and prescriptive,’ says Johnathan Napier, a crop scientist at Rothamsted Research. ‘If you introduce a mutant plant using chemical mutagenesis, you will likely introduce thousands if not millions of mutations. That is not a GMO. But if you introduce one mutation by gene editing, then that is a GMO.’
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The ECJ ruling will have strong reverberations in academe and industry. The European Seed Association described the ruling as a watershed moment. ‘It is now likely that much of the potential benefits of these innovative methods will be lost for Europe – with significant economic and environmental consequences,’ said secretary general Garlich von Essen.
In 2012, BASF moved its plant research operations to North Carolina, US, because of European regulations. ‘If I was a company developing gene editing technologies, I’d think of moving out of Europe,’ says Napier.
‘The EU is shooting itself in the foot. Its ag economy has been declining since 2005 and it has moved from net self-sufficiency to requiring imports of major staples,’ says Maurice Moloney, CEO of the Global Institute for Food Security in Saskatchewan, Canada. ‘Paradoxically, it still imports massive quantities of GM soya beans and other crops to feed livestock.’
Renewables outstripped coal power for the first time in electricity generation in Europe in 2017, according to a new report. The European Power Sector in 2017 – by think-tanks Sandbag and Agora Energiewende – predicts renewables could provide half of Europe’s electricity by 2030.
Wind, solar and biomass generation collectively rose by 12% in 2017 – to 679 Terawatt hours – generating 21% of Europe’s electricity and contributing to 30% of the energy mix. ‘This is incredible progress considering just five years ago coal generation was more than twice that of wind, solar and biomass,’ the report says.
Hydroelectric power is the most popular renewable energy source worldwide. Image: PxHere
However, growth is variable. The UK and Germany alone contributed to 56% of the expansion in the past three years. There is also a ‘bias’ for wind, with a 19% increase in 2017, due to good wind conditions and huge investments, the report says.
‘This is good news now the biomass boom is over, but bad news in that solar was responsible for just 14% of the renewables growth in 2014 to 2017.’
New analysis by trade group WindEurope backs up the findings on wind power, showing that countries across Europe installed more offshore capacity than ever before: 3.14GW. This corresponds to 560 new offshore wind turbines across 17 wind farms. Fourteen projects were fully completed and connected to the grid, including the first floating offshore wind farm. Europe now has a total installed offshore wind capacity of 15.78GW.
The EU’s 2030 goals for climate and energy. Video: European Commission
Germany remains top of the European league, with the largest total installed wind-power capacity; worth 42% of the EU’s new capacity in 2017, followed by Spain, the UK, and France. Denmark boasts the largest share of wind in its power mix at 44% of electricity demand.
Combatting malnutrition in all its forms – overweight and obesity as well as undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies – is a global problem.
The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) recently published a report calling for urgent action on food and nutrition security: this action will need to include consideration of the options for changing European diets to mitigate climate change, conferring co-benefits for health.
The European Commission estimates 51.6% of the EU’s population is overweight. Image: Tony Alter/Flickr
EASAC brings together EU member states’ national science academies with the aim of offering evidence-based advice to European policy makers. EASAC provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard and its recent report is part of a global project led by the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP).
The analysis and recommendations for Europe are accompanied by parallel activities focusing on Africa, Asia and the Americas. The IAP report will be published later in 2018.
EASAC recommendations will incorporate global challenges and needs, not just those in Europe. Image: Pixabay
In the EASAC report we emphasise that research and innovation are central to finding solutions. We recommend being more ambitious in identifying and using scientific opportunities: How can the current evidence base shape understanding of both supply- and demand-side challenges? And how should the research agenda be defined, including basic research, to fill knowledge gaps?
Climate change will have negative impacts on food systems, necessitating the introduction of climate-smart agriculture such as the adoption of plant breeding innovations to cope with drought.
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Agriculture and current diets also contribute significantly to climate change. Mitigating this contribution depends on land-sparing and agronomic management practices together with efforts to influence consumer behaviours associated with excessive greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, including the over-consumption of calories and meat.
Among the core findings in our report is that food consumption will need to change to improve consumer health. It is important to explore individual responsiveness to nutrition and the links to health, and to consider the particular needs of vulnerable groups.
High meat production has been linked to increasing carbon emissions. Image: Pixabay
As part of the changes to food consumption patterns, a decrease in the consumption of animal protein could be important for both health and the environment but, globally, more research is needed to clarify these relationships and to measure sustainability related to consumption of healthy diets. We also call for policy makers to introduce incentives for affordable nutrition.
Agriculture has significant impacts on the environment. We call for the revamp of the Common Agricultural Policy to focus on innovation rather than subsidies, in order to play a key role in European competitiveness and the bioeconomy.
Alternatives to traditional forms of animal protein include food from the oceans, laboratory-grown meat and insects. Research is needed to understand and inform consumer attitudes to innovative food and diets.
Also, research objectives for the next generation of biofuels should include examining the potential of cellulosic raw materials. Further ahead, energy research must continue to explore how to engineer systems with improved photosynthesis.
Biofuels are derived from common crops, including wheat, corn and sugar. Image: Public Domain Pictures
Europe should not stall on opportunities for innovation coming within range. Breakthroughs in genome editing and other genetic research are crucial to the future of agriculture. European policy makers must capitalise on these scientific advances.
For improved plant and animal breeding, it is important to protect and characterise wild gene pools and to continue sequencing and functional assessment to unveil the potential of genetic resources. Precision agriculture offers many opportunities to improve productivity with reduced environmental impact. Large data sets are vital to support innovation and prepare for risk and uncertainty.
Open-source automated precision farming | Rory Aronson | TEDxUCLA. Video: TEDx Talks
Underpinning all our recommendations is the recognition that research and innovation must be better integrated, across disciplines and the public and private sectors, in order to better understand the interfaces between health, nutrition, food and other ecosystem services.
EASAC emphasises that efforts to increase food systems’ efficiency should not focus on increasing agricultural productivity by ignoring environmental costs.
Large-scale industrial mining of asbestos began towards the end of the 19th Century; predominantly in Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Brazil.
This relatively cheap material with excellent fire and heat resistance, good electrical insulating properties, and high-tensile strength was used widely in the construction industry and in many other products, including brake pads, hair dryers, and industrial filters for wine, beer and pharmaceuticals. Worldwide, an estimated two million tons of asbestos is used annually.
But asbestos exposure can be deadly. Anyone who handles the material or breathes in its fibres puts themselves at risk of lung diseases, such as asbestosis or cancer. The World Health Organization estimates that in a single year over 100,000 deaths are due to asbestos-related diseases.
Lung asbestos bodies after chemical digestion of lung tissue. Image: Wikimedia Commons
‘The truth is that it is a nasty, hazardous, toxic, carcinogenic material that has made millions and millions of people sick,’ says Arthur Frank, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel University, Philadelphia, US. Frank is a longtime advocate for banning the mineral.
To date, around 60 countries have banned the use of asbestos, including the UK. Russia, India, and China, however, still use asbestos in a range of products. The US is the last among developed countries not to ban asbestos entirely. More significant for Western countries are the millions of tonnes of asbestos left in buildings – asbestos becomes a problem if disturbed, especially if the fibres go undetected.
Asbestos is a health risk to construction workers. Image: Pixabay
Traditionally, those who work in the building trade are most at risk, though workers can bring home fibres on their clothes, which poses a risk to anyone they come into contact with.
‘There is a significant amount of data that points to as little as one day of exposure being sufficient to give rise to malignancy in humans and animals,’ says Frank. It’s unclear precisely the cellular mechanism, he says, but health experts agree that asbestos poses a severe public health risk. In the UK, asbestos is responsible for half of work-related cancer deaths.
The European Parliament was one of the first to ban all future asbestos use. Image: European Parliament@Flickr
The European Parliament has pushed for the removal of asbestos from all public buildings by 2028. The asbestos industry, however, argues that it is wrong to say that any exposure to asbestos can kill and believes there is a permissible level of exposure.
In the US, asbestos-related litigation is increasingly common. ‘The companies put up a fight in most cases, delaying settlement until practically the eve of trial and disputing everything they can as to medical diagnosis and causation, and evidence of the plaintiffs’ exposure histories,’ says Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant who has spent 40 years working on asbestos as a public health problem.
However, man-made substitutes for asbestos-based construction materials are available. For over 50 years, asbestos was combined with cement in Europe because its fibres are mechanically strong and durable, says Eshmaeil Ganjian, Professor of Civil Engineering Materials at Coventry University, UK.
PVA is also widely used in glue. Image: Pixabay
These boards were used for internal and external walls as well as for roofs. Europe now uses polyvinyl alcohol – widely known as PVA - in its cement boards, Ganjian says, but this is more expensive than asbestos, which has come down in price over the past 20 years.
Waste not, want not
Ganjian is currently working on a project aimed at replacing asbestos in cement boards in Iran with waste plant fibres, such as Kraft pulp, and polymeric fibres such as acrylic and polypropylene fibres. ‘The idea is to use locally available fibres, so we use cheap acrylic fibres available from petrochemical companies in the region. The strength of cellulose fibres is lower than asbestos fibres, but when we add polypropylene or acrylic or other synthetic fibres then this increases the mechanical strength,’ he explains.
Shiraz, Iran. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The Iranian government subsequently stopped importing asbestos from Russia and banned its use in cement board factories, switching to local alternatives. ‘This was a win-win situation. It saves lives and uses a waste material,’ says Ganjian.
In March 2017, the world’s largest coatings producer, Pennsylvania-based PPG – which three years ago announced it had budgeted $4bn for major acquisitions but still has nothing to show for it – laid siege to Amsterdam-based rival AkzoNobel. More recently, US hedge funds have drawn Basel-based Clariant into their sights.
While the motives of industrial investors and hedge funds differ, the tactics of forcing a company to make strategic changes that seemingly will generate more value suit both. Pursued for some time by private equity, and aware that other would-be suitors were hot on its trail, Akzo earlier in 2017 announced plans to hive off its speciality chemicals business into a standalone company. The same concerns were central to Clariant in its decision to merge with Huntsman. As it appears, neither tactic has deterred or deferred activist action.
Binnenhof, The Hague, Netherlands. The Dutch government assisted Akzo in avoiding the attempted takeover. Image: Wikimedia Commons
At Akzo, PPG wielded the battering ram into June, with even the lure of a €26bn deal making no impression. With moral support from the Dutch government, the European coatings market leader parried the thrust. Nevertheless, financial markets have it that the US rival, with support from activist investor Elliott Advisers – which owns 9.5% of the Dutch player’s share capital – will return to fight another day.
Elliott continues to stir the waters with legal challenges. It has lost two cases so far, but the tentative truce sought by the courts until Akzo holds an extraordinary general meeting in September appears shaky. Already, the defence effort has taken a toll on the Amsterdam company, which owns the assets sloughed off some years ago by erstwhile chemical industry heavyweight ICI.
Swiss chemical company Clariant, whose interests vary from transport to beauty, are also under siege from US opponents.
Down the road in Switzerland, Clariant is being pummelled by White Tale, an acquisition vehicle for US hedge funds Corvex and 40 North, which have meanwhile acquired 10% of its share capital. The funds are seeing to torpedo the merger with Huntsman, contending that the combination lacks strategic rationale and undermines the Swiss group’s strategy of becoming a pure-play specialty chemicals company.
Because of the family’s interest, the New York vulture capitalists can’t get their hands completely around the Huntsman jugular, but making the leaders of the family-led business uncomfortable about the impact on its business may generate some degree of satisfaction. The US firm has already reacted to pressure by spinning off its pigments business.
Clariant CEO Harriolf Kottmann. Image: PressReleaseFinder@Flickr
Also under obvious pressure, Clariant CEO Harriolf Kottmann, in presenting semi-annual financial results in July, announced that management was amenable to selling about a quarter of assets to appease the markets. This, he suggested, could include the divestment of the speciality chemicals group’s lower-margin Plastics & Coatings division.
The Swiss player’s largest business unit, spun off last year, which manufactures masterbatches and pigments for colouring plastics, accounts for 40% of group sales. With the proceeds from the asset sale, the investors reason, Clariant could pay a special dividend and make them more willing to stay the course without a merger.
The chemical industry sector is undergoing some huge changes worldwide. Video: PWC’s Strategy&
At least openly, no activist ‘invader’ has yet been spotted trying to overcome the well-fortified ramparts of Deutschland AG or been coldly brushed off by the Ecole Nationale-trained leaders of France’s chemical producers. However, if the raiders’ recent forays into the Netherlands and Switzerland eventually succeed and find imitators, the picture could change – especially as acquisition-hungry companies and the so-called vulture capital funds that took a wrecking ball to Dow and DuPont seem to have joined forces.
Meanwhile, there may be some relief on the horizon for CEOs currently struggling through sleepless nights. Even with deal fever still simmering, some M&A watchers believe takeovers or mergers worldwide may have reached their zenith. Not least, as global economic recovery gathers strength, rising interest rates will cool the enthusiasm for more expensive transactions, the argument goes.