Industry Market Trends
Differentiating Yourself from the Competition in the Green Chemistry Supply Chain
April 4, 2013
By David J. C. Constable, Ph.D., ACS Green Chemistry InstituteWithout 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.
- 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.