By David J. C. Constable, Ph.D., ACS Green Chemistry Institute
Without a doubt, there are immense challenges facing the world today and every company needs to develop strategies to manage potential risks. These challenges multiply as a company has to work through an extended supply chain. From a broad sustainability perspective, one could outline challenges like food, water, energy, and related drivers, but from a chemicals perspective, there are a few other major challenges that most people don’t think about.
If you look at a periodic table and ask yourself the simple question of, “Where do these elements come from, and how much of each does the world have left?” you may be surprised to learn that some key elements are not available in large amounts. Moreover, some of these elements are critical to our current way of life. It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss in detail, but you may want to dig a little into the world’s supply of the platinum group metals (elements like gold, silver, rhodium, rhenium, platinum, etc.), indium, and phosphorus as just a few examples of elements we need to manage in a way that doesn’t result in our effectively “losing” them from routine commerce.
It’s not that we don’t have enough right now, and it’s possible that like many commodities, as supply constricts, we will develop alternatives. Or, we’ll obtain these materials at higher costs — economic, environmental and social costs and impacts will necessarily increase. Either way you look at it, there are a host of challenges.
Green Chemistry Challenges in the Supply Chain
I like to remind people that chemists use the elements and molecules they do for significant reasons. In general, these chemicals are use because they result in thermodynamically and kinetically favored reactions, generally produce high yields, react in robust and predictable ways, are “easily” obtained (i.e., are the lowest cost materials), and generally don’t require sophisticated reactors or technology in the laboratory.
Despite these advantages, these chemical building blocks have a few risks associated with them that threaten their sustainability. Most carbon-based feedstocks are built from petroleum and if you go just beyond petroleum refining, chemical process efficiencies become very poor and process waste increases dramatically. It’s also been widely discussed that human and environmental fate and effects data (e.g., toxicity, biodegradation, etc.) are not available for many substances in commerce.
The use of reactive, high-hazard chemicals results in high-risk process chemistries being routinely used. There are often inappropriate engineering or process controls to manage the risk associated with these chemicals. Every once in a while, and certainly more often than we might like, things go boom, or there is a fire, or a release that has a major local impact. While there is a considerable amount of legislation and regulation that covers chemical use throughout the world, these are unevenly enforced and sometimes ineffective.
Sustainability Needs to be Designed into Products and Processes
So, what are we going to do about it? It stands to reason that if we want to make the biggest impacts to products, services, and costs, we have to start from the ground up; we have to design it in from the very beginning. That means, if we want to build sustainability into the design of products and services, we have to think differently about the “what” and “how” of research and development. Increasing demands and decreasing budgets are likely to mean there will be greater reliance on easily accessible company-wide tools that provide early, holistic assessments and highlight sustainability issues. And it’s not a one-time only proposition; assessments need to be undertaken at regular intervals as a product moves through development to ensure that as more is learned about the chemicals, product, and process, we are not creating any unfortunate or unintended consequences.
There is a balance to this periodic assessment, however, finding the right balance is challenging. Let’s be realistic. There’s a rush to market with new, innovative products to ensure new sources of revenue and market leadership. But, we all know that many products die in development and become victims of technical performance problems or excessive cost, or a major quality problem. Add in environmental, safety and health, and lifecycle issues coupled with sustainability concerns, and it’s a wonder that a product survives.
Green Chemistry Spurs Innovation
That’s where green chemistry comes to the rescue. You’ve probably heard of the 12 principles of Green Chemistry that were published in 1995 by Paul Anastas and John Warner. I like to boil these down to three general principles or buckets. These are:
- Maximize resource efficiency.
- Eliminate and minimize hazards and pollution.
- Design systems holistically and use lifecycle thinking.
Once you get these down, you have to make certain that you are asking the right questions and utilizing the right tools. One of the most important aspects of ensuring the right questions get asked is to have a few key metrics. Metrics I like to use include reaction mass efficiency, the number of stages and/or steps in a synthesis, the total number of solvents and the solvents per stage, mass intensity, materials of concern, and lifecycle impacts. These were chosen strategically and they touch the most important aspects of chemical processing.
In addition to metrics, one needs to have tools that allow you to collect these metrics. Many companies have incorporated these tools into their electronic notebooks or other development processes so automation replaces human effort. It’s important to use existing systems and ways of working so that metrics become an easy way of working and a regular part of the decision making process for a product’s continued development.
There are many other things that a chemist needs in the way of a common toolbox — new chemistries and ways of putting molecules together. It is a fact that most reactions and chemical processing technologies have been around for a while, and because they were discovered at a time when the world did not care about environmental impacts, they are not energy or mass efficient. This needs to change. Yes, there has been some progress, but it is fair to say we have a ways to go.
Co-opetition Favors All
Co-opetition is a term used to describe how companies in the same market work collaboratively and, increasingly, they work through common supply chains. They work pre-collaboratively on new ideas to advance scientific knowledge and research new products; simultaneously compete for market share; and exploit the new knowledge in different ways. This allows them to achieve:
- Top line growth through product innovations that create new markets or replace existing markets;
- Cost reductions through increased efficiency (mass and energy), replacement of raw material feedstocks, automation, lean sigma, etc.;
- Risk reduction through business and governance processes in place to eliminate, reduce, and manage risk; and
- Brand management, public perceptions, community right to operate, reputation, etc.
The ACS Green Chemistry Institute’s (ACS-GCI) Industrial Roundtables provide an important place for co-opetition to take place and flourish. There are currently three roundtables serving the pharmaceutical, chemical and one part of the product formulators sector. These are a great start, but they need to grow in size, we need to create more roundtables, and we need to increase their outcomes and impacts.
There are some traditional sticking points we continue to contend with, including the investments in capital to replace existing infrastructure; the economics and financial analysis used to evaluate new chemicals, products, and processes; the current business climate; the fact that bigger sustainability and corporate social responsibility issues dominate corporate executive agendas; the educational system, which still does not produce graduates who understand how to do sustainable and green chemistry; good old fashioned resistance to change and risk aversion and the ever-present desire to maintain the status quo.
Despite these sticking points, I hope that I’ve raised just a few sustainable chemistry risks that you may not have been aware of and made the case that considering these in early design of products is essential. There are tools available that can be used for design and which will also help companies streamline transparency to their stakeholders. The ACS-GCI Industrial Roundtables prove that co-opetition favors the entire supply chain while delivering significant benefits to the world.
About David J.C. Constable, Ph.D.
David J.C. Constable is the Director of the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute®. He has more than 25 years of experience helping businesses develop sustainability, green chemistry, energy, environment, and health and safety programs. His work history includes such companies as Lockheed Martin, GlaxoSmithKline and ICI Americas. He joined the American Chemical Society in January 2013.