Innovations in Green Chemistry Find Their Way to the Market
At the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) 17th annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in Bethesda, Md., presenters and exhibitors told attendees about a multitude of sustainable-chemistry innovations coming out of business and academic research. Those innovations are yielding products and materials that prevent waste, create fewer hazards, use less energy, employ renewable feedstocks, and embody the other green chemistry principles I outlined in last week’s article about the conference. Let’s consider some of the new sustainable materials that were discussed at the event.
Renewable Feedstocks Reach Industrial-Scale Production
I spoke with David Hedlund, fermentation scientist for BioAmber Inc. of Plymouth, Minn., who was at the conference displaying a poster presentation about BioAmber’s commercial production of bio-succinic acid (SA) and other bio-based renewable chemicals. Succinic acid is an important precursor material used for producing polymers, polyurethanes, adhesives and coatings, solvents, lubricants, cosmetics, foods, flavors, and other products. While BioAmber is still a startup, Hedlund said, “We are producing at a 3,000 metric-ton capacity per year right now, which is certainly more than a typical startup would produce. The product is sold, it does generate money. It is the launching ground for what will be a new 30,000-metric-ton-per-year facility,” which is being built in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.
In his presentation about important lessons DuPont has learned in its green chemistry efforts, Robert Giraud of DuPont Research and Technology discussed some products the company has developed by employing greener processes. As an example, Giraud mentioned Rynaxypyr, an insectide that is “effective with low rates of application” and “has ultra-low toxicity to wildlife.” More importantly, he stressed, was the process used in developing the product: “We had a strong collaboration of chemists, chemical engineers, environmental engineers, and toxicologists to work out a greener process.” As an example, the group put in a lot of effort “to make sure we minimized solvents” and “recycled the solvents that we did use.”
DuPont has made a commitment to the use of renewable material sources, said Giraud. He cited Sorona, a biopolymer derived from cornstarch and used in carpets, apparel, and automobile interiors: “Sorona is built on bio-PDO, bio-based 1,3-Propanediol.” Breakthrough technologies have allowed DuPont to produce the bio-PDO using “40 percent less energy than the chemical route.” The product is now “fully commercial at 150 million pounds per year,” Giraud told the audience. DuPont uses its bio-PDO as a building-block for other chemical products.
In a June 19 keynote address, Michael J. Pcolinski, vice president for innovation and technology for North America at BASF, also spoke to the value of collaboration for development of sustainable chemical solutions. BASF’s collaboration network extends at times to its competitors. BASF and Dow Chemical joined forces to develop a technology that uses hydrogen peroxide to produce propylene oxide, a key chemical intermediate employed in such applications as insulation, appliances, automobiles, furniture, coatings, fluids and pharmaceuticals. The two companies jointly received a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for their new process.
Starting Small, Solving Real Problems
At a special session on “Global Supplies for Chemical Feedstocks in the 21st Century,” Adam Malofsky, a Ph.D. chemist who is CEO of Bioformix Inc., demonstrated that green chemistry does not have to be about producing millions of pounds of chemicals from bio-feedstocks. Bioformix manufactures high-performance sustainable polymers for coatings and adhesives applications, based on a proprietary methylene malonate platform.
Malofsky told me in an interview that in the green chemistry field, “most people seem to be developing technologies, academically or even within a lot of very big companies, without an actual purpose in mind — who wants the product? We came across [Bioformix's adhesive product] by doing things completely antithetically to what everyone else was doing.”
When Malofsky and his associates started investigating the sustainable chemistry market, they “met with a lot of people in the Fortune 50 around the world and started to realize that everything [green chemistry researchers] were doing in green academically has nothing to do with what these companies really wanted. They wanted to sustain their existence, not the earth. Now if sustaining the earth simultaneously helped them to sustain their companies by delivering products that solved problems for them, they were all for it. In general, none of the chemistries out there were doing that.”
Malofsky thinks too many green-chemical efforts are focused on making “water bottles for Wal-Mart,” or in other words, biobased replacements for “cheap plastic.” Such products mean “high investment, making gargantuan amounts of materials in huge volumes, for drop-in chemicals that have no new features or even inferior features, with no idea if it will ever make a profit.”
Bioformix, on the other hand, is based on a different model, said Malofsky in his presentation: “Low investments for small volumes of products with features that I can sell for very high prices,” that enable businesses to solve problems, create better products and save money. The company’s polymer adhesives work quickly at room temperature, saving time, energy and effort.
But Is It Really Green? Lifecycle Analysis Yields Insights
Many presenters at the event acknowledged that sustainable chemistry has to be about more than simply coming up with new chemical formulations or feedstocks. Developing sustainable materials involves a rethinking of the nature of the organization and how it uses those materials.
In her presentation about adoption of green chemistry, The Dow Chemical Co.’s Pamela Spencer discussed her company’s lifecycle approach to product development. Dow evaluates the sustainability of its products through lifecycle analysis to demonstrate whether a new proposed product is truly “greener” than the conventional product. To do this, Dow employs a Chemical Sustainability Footprint Tool that evaluates the lifecycle of a product in the economic, social, company, greenhouse gas (GHG), water, and resource use dimensions.
As an example, Spencer discussed a new spray coating that was evaluated using the footprint tool. The standard technology required 80 kg of material for a functional unit and 135 kWh of electricity to apply it. The new technology required 65 kg (20 percent less) and only 5 kWh of electricity for a functional unit (96 percent less electricity). Which is greener? At first glance, you might say the new technology. However, the big-picture analysis showed that the new technology required much more energy during raw-materials production. “By looking at the full lifecycle,” Spencer said, “you can see that the new technology merely shifted the burden upstream, using more energy-intensive materials, and overall the new technology didn’t really afford any energy benefit.”
On the other hand, Spencer pointed to some Dow sustainable products that do deliver significant lifecycle benefits, such as the Dowtherm A heat transfer fluid used in solar power stations, and Dow’s protected membrane roof (PMR) system used for green buildings. “Studies worldwide,” she asserted, “have clearly demonstrated that green roofs make positive impact on their local environment that really ripples through the larger eco and economic systems.”
The point here is that green or sustainable chemistry is not just about the feedstock that is used for the material or its chemical formulation, but the way the material is used and its lifecycle environmental impact.