Paving the way for a Sustainable Chemical Industry
- Harshad Naik, Managing Director, Huntsman International India Pvt Ltd.
Product as well as process innovations are the way forward to obtain higher conversion efficiencies, saving resources and utilities. New technologies on the anvil will also enable sustainability.
Process as well as product innovations are fundamental to creating a sustainable chemical industry so that resources from raw material to utilities are optimally used. Regulatory and public pressures are also driving the shift towards environmentally benign processes and products. A major area, transportation/mobility is being impacted with a slew of technologies from materials that help reduce the carbon footprint to electric vehicles that reduce or do away with fossil fuels. Digital technologies on the anvil will also dramatically drive efficiencies, reducing waste and bring in paradigm changes in manufacturing which will also enable sustainability
The chemical industry is an integral part of manufacturing, textiles, pharmaceuticals and transport, among many other sectors that are adapting sustainable practices to align with global quality and environmental standards. Sustainability is gaining importance in the chemical industry to encompass social, environmental and economic aspects of the ecosystem. Today, chemical companies are opting for a variety of renewable resources to develop products that will reduce the pressure on fossil fuels and leave a smaller environmental footprint. The industry that used to be heavily dependent on non-renewable energy and production resources, now seeks bio-based manufacturing that is driving sustainable change and helping in cutting costs for overall maintenance and production.
With the world being sensitised about environmental pollution and depleting natural resources, environment, government and industrial policies are moving towards achieving sustainable development. The in- creased inter relation between apt environmental and industrial policies will help promote the protection of our ecosystem, increase healthy competition, innovation and employment opportunities. Chemical companies that are acceding to sustainable practices can drive stakeholder interest, resulting in creating more products and solutions that address the sustainability challenges. They are adopting strategies that will help them create a goal for themselves to achieve sustainable development through their products.
Corporates and governments need to work in tandem
Climate change is a global issue and consequently requires a strong and sustained effort of collaboration between countries, continents, private players as well as government agencies to develop and implement policies for the chemical industry to address sustainability practices. For example, chemical companies have innovated and delivered energy-efficient products that reduce CFC (Chloro-Flurocarbons) or Greenhouse Gas (GHG) across the economy. These product innovations have helped in the widespread application of chemical technology, from building materials and agricultural products to home appliances and automobiles.
For example, Huntsman Chemicals’ agricultural science division has helped create new pest control systems and animal health products that increase yields with minimal environmental impact. The agrochemicals that Huntsman manufactures focus on low toxicity, low
odour and inert agricultural ingredients that improve the performance of pest control delivery systems for most types of farming across all continents. Collaborating with regional environmental agencies and agricultural specialists outside the lab has enabled Huntsman to develop numerous chemical components that are attuned to regulations and tolerance exemptions.
Understanding decarbonisation conundrum
Outside the purview of agriculture, the chemical industry covers a wide range of diverse processes, ranging from complex processes to smaller-scale batch processes producing specialty chemicals, supplementing construction materials and pharmaceutical ingredients. However, the challenge for these companies is the production of chemicals that avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The implementation of COP21 or the Paris Climate Change Agreement also addresses the issue of creating ecofriendly products to reduce carbon footprint. At the same time, the challenge also presents a massive opportunity for the sector to show its concern to address climate change through sustainable culture, processes and products.
Unfortunately, changes in the economy and the need to decarbonise brings up another host of roadblocks such as energy prices and policy costs, stringent ROI requirements, commercialization of new and unproven technology, high cost of R&D, as well as uncertainty in policy and regulations. Having said that, chemical companies are circumventing these barriers to come up with a set of technology roadmaps that will help in evaluating the potential developments in the chemical industry and help reduce carbon emissions. For example, there are several enablers that help chemical companies decarbonize - a stable and predictable policy framework, strong business case and the ability to demonstrate payback, financial incentives to address the costs associated with adopting green technologies and the recognition of key technology enablers to further develop and accede to the technologies.
Product innovation – The way forward
Apart from policy and regulatory changes, product innovations in the chemical industry can also have a considerable positive impact towards environmental sustainability. For example, polyurethane insulation produced by Huntsman, for buildings and houses, can reduce demand for fossil fuel-based energy used for heating and cooling. In hot environments it can minimise the building’s heat resulting in the minimal use of air conditioners and cooling systems that run on nonrenewable energy sources. Buildings like these can save 40% of carbon dioxide emissions and homes can save a significant amount on electricity bills. According to a McKinsey report, the ratio of carbon dioxide emissions saved by polyurethane used in building insulation, compared to the carbon dioxide emissions used to produce the material is 233:1. In the longrun, extensive use of polyurethane insulation can help meet advanced energy codes of American National Standards, The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and AirConditioning Engineers Standards and Illuminating Engineering Society Standards – practised globally.
Textile innovations to save water
Innovation is quite essential for organizations that compete in rapidly changing markets. They are constantly under pressure from shifting consumer demand and adhering to global environmental policies. However, the chemical industry is constantly making efforts to achieve the goal for sustainable development by using the latest advancements in science and technology in all its areas of functioning. A good example of environmental sustainability of Huntsman Textile Effects introducing the new PHOBOTEX RSY nonfluorinated durable water repellent (DWR) that can be used on high-performance synthetic textiles. With this water repellent finish, brands and retailers can provide eco-friendly clothing that have extreme rain and stain protection. Thus, reducing the number of times a cloth is washed and the environmental footprint for treated fabrics.
Similarly, in dyes, Huntsman’s AVITERA SE reactive dye range is a real game-changer for the industry. These dyes use up to 50% less water and energy than conventional dyeing technologies less salt, and they are the first reactive dyes to be free of para-chloroaniline among other hazardous substances. Made in India at the company’s Baroda production plant, the AVITERA SE dyes also help mills improve productivity and yield, as well as provide businesses with a cleaner supply chain.
Transport innovations to save fossil fuels
Moving on from textiles, transportation is a major sector that is under constant pressure to reduce emissions as well as use renewable resources. The developments in transportation have not only had an impact on the lives of individuals but also large economies, and will continue to have a decisive impact on the future of the planet. In the aerospace industry, fuel pur-
chases are 30-40% of a transport aircraft’s operational costs. Fuel costs, heavy weights of aeroplanes and corrosion in adverse climatic conditions are the challenges that the aeronautics industry has been dealing with. Though the chemical industry is involved in refining the fuel and maintenance of air transport vehicles, it is also actively interested in advancing technologies that can help reduce the carbon footprint.
For example, Araldite epoxy resins widely used in civil as well as defence applications such as manufacturing of composite parts of passenger aircraft, military aircraft, helicopters, marine transport as well as in space applications such as satellites and radars. In addition to multifunctional epoxy resins, Huntsman provides the high-performance epoxy adhesives and epoxy syntactic materials which are primarily used for reinforcing honeycomb composite panels in aircraft floors, galley walls and bulkheads. The epoxy coating systems are also used for protection of metallic parts from corrosion. In combination, these parts reduce the weight of the vehicle, help increase fuel efficiency and cut down costs significantly.
Adopting new mobility
However, the transportation and mobility sector is moving towards a more technology-oriented future. The emergence of connected, electric vehicles and shifting attitudes toward mobility are beginning to profoundly change the way people and goods move about, affecting a host of industries, including chemical. Decades ago, the auto industry saw the role of chemicals and materials fundamentally reshaped as the oil shock spurred the need for lighter-weight and lower-cost components. The use of polyurethanes to make car seats as well as efficient paints for coating the vehicles became a generic practice but future mobility trends may profoundly affect coatings manufacturers and their suppliers. While business from automotive refinish shops could decline, there would be many opportunities for “functional” coatings in general infrastructure and haptic materials in the car.
There is also a possibility of a general shift from materials that play a purely structured role to those that provide both structure and function. For example, the emergence of autonomous vehicles could disrupt the chemicals and materials that go into the building of the vehicle and are required to maintain the vehicle. Today, a lot of vehicles on road are equipped with crash-avoidance technologies and aftermarket body shops will likely see an impact on the number of cars that need repairs and repainting. As the segment is already in decline, with time the $7 billion market for coatings supply for automotive refinish¬ing will also dwindle.
Having said that, the awareness about sustainable transportation practices will bring about a positive impact to the chemical industry. There will be an increase in expected volume in battery materials as the overall demand goes up. The use of high performance polymers will increase due to light-weighting and smart infrastructure applications. And the use of commodity polymers will be higher due to light weighting. On the other hand, in the coating segment, as the demand shifts from metal to plastics and composites, coatings will shift from aesthetic to functional. The overall shift to a more technology-oriented transport future will decrease the need for lubricants that are oil based, therefore reducing the use of fossil fuels.
To achieve certain goals, chemical companies will have to restructure their product portfolio, rewrite business models to generate higher returns on their investment in innovation and successfully exploit newage digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data analytics and blockchain, among others.
Traditional methods of developing new materials are highly time and resource intensive and the discovery and design of new materials with novel properties aided by machine learning techniques is becoming a hot topic. For example, ANN modelling has found a place in applications such as the prediction of material melting points and the density and viscosity of biofuel compounds. Machine learning techniques are also being used to simulate the strength of concrete materials, a useful application for civil construction projects. Hence, the changes brought in by AI, blockchain and modern technologies have the potential to curb energy wastage, increase lifecycle efficiency and precisely calculate the amount of product to be produced for a specific purpose.
Today, chemical companies along with their supply chain partners take a holistic approach to sustainability; they educate their employees about sustainability and the impact of chemicals in the environment. The approach helps unify the entire company’s outlook towards environmental protection. Moreover, with skilled workforce, companies can develop and produce innovative products, services and solutions for the growing global population, while striving to conserve the planet’s resources and respecting the environment.