Strategy & Management

How to Tap the Potential of Green Chemistry

Strategies to Cause Less Impact on the Environment

30.03.2018 -

The challenges of sustainability are among the most complex and daunting ever faced by society. Green chemistry needs to be increasingly engaged in facing these challenges by addressing the intrinsic nature of materials and energy to make them more sustainable. While green chemistry may not yet be mainstream, the tools and approaches to getting there are evolving: cross-sectoral, value chain collaboration is growing; innovative new chemistries and materials are being developed; and education and awareness are progressing. By continuing to make improvements and breakthrough innovations, the chemical industry can create advanced product and process solutions that significantly accelerate the transition to a resource efficient, low-carbon and circular economy.

In detail, we interviewed professionals ranging from CEOs to heads of R&D and process development about:

  • What are the drivers, how would you rate the potential and where do you expect limitations of green chemistry?
  • Which strategies do you consider central to accelerating innovation in and adoption of green chemistry?
  • What does it need for green chemistry concepts to pay off not only environmentally but also economically? Can you give some examples?

The Journey Has Just Begun

Sonja Jost (DexLeChem):

Green chemistry triggers innovations by helping us to leave our comfort zone. Things that we have been doing for decades in the same way are suddenly in the spotlight of scrutiny. By a pure change of perspective, we open the doors to a nearly untouched pool of innovations. If we look at the great inventions in human history, their momentum has always been created out of a need. Green chemistry and the underlying need for a more sustainable future is the need to restore our life on this planet. The momentum of the movement that drives this change is tremendous and unstoppable. And the good news is: there are no limitations to green chemistry, as there are no limitations to chemistry itself. There was chemistry before the age of oil and gas and there will be chemistry afterwards. Nature has taught us to which incredible results green chemistry can lead and researchers all over the world are diving deeper and deeper into this relatively young science. A lot of green chemistry concepts are already paying off compared to their predecessors. One nice example is the substitution of organic solvents based on crude oil through water in the production of chemicals. For a long time, this was considered a “no-go.” However, knowledge develops and suddenly this altered approach offers significant competitive advantages: By using the unique properties of aqueous solutions a simple product/catalyst separation is possible that enables the re-use of the expensive catalysts for the first time while no chemical modification is necessary. In other words: up to 30% of the manufacturing costs of chemicals can nowadays be saved by applying water in the production. This example shows us that the art of designing new competitive advantages lies in taking totally new paths and not in merely trying to copy the former state-of-the-art. We have just begun the journey and there is no end in sight.

The Best Way of Practicing Chemistry

Rakeshwar Bandichhor,  director API-R&D, Dr. Reddy’s:

Use of renewable raw materials, cost-effective operation and material production with respectable atom efficiency, environmental well-being with remarkably lower Process Mass intensity (PMI), health, safety and global sustainability are the green chemistry drivers. Minimizing or ideally eliminating waste by applying green chemistry by design is preferred over waste management. Green chemistry is basically the best way of practicing chemistries and executing processes either in the lab or at scale. Chemistry’s contribution to society is well known and widely appreciated. Green chemistry now further elevates the importance of chemistry and enables a more sustainable society. In practice, the limitations of green chemistry are broadly due to several points: firstly, a lack of expertise in finding greener alternatives in a timely manner and secondly insufficient organizational incentivization of the excellent work done at the ground level by chemists and engineers. Traditional batch manufacturing is another limiting factor. Nevertheless, over the last decade a lot of technological advancement has taken place, and sophisticated tools are available to realize the green chemistry and engineering objectives at higher scales, e.g. continuous processing, bio-catalysis, etc. Supply chain partners to multinational companies are usually cost-driven and not adequately environmentally responsible.

Most industries believe – consciously or subconsciously – that high costs, unchartered time and efforts are involved in the adoption of green chemistry and engineering practices. However, this is not true. In order to maximize the benefits of this discipline and accelerate green innovation, a top down approach is required to build a culture of open innovation, effective training, learning and technical capabilities to ensure that structured and science-driven approaches are adopted.

Innovative green chemistry by design and structured science-driven approaches based on guidelines such as 12 green chemistry principles, green chemistry metrics (particularly, atom efficiency, PMI and reaction mass efficiency), and solvent selection guidelines are keys to safe and cost-effective operations. Pfizer has set a great example in this regard. By employing some of the above guidelines, the company won the US Presidential Green Chemistry Award for its outstanding work on Sertraline. They eventually doubled the overall yield by process intensification enabling the process to be more cost effective.

Biologization of Industries Is a Megatrend

Jürgen Eck, (BRAIN):

The transformation of society towards a bioeconomy is underway, with the aim of handling natural resources more efficiently and establishing sustainable manufacturing processes and products to tackle the challenges our times present. The biologization of entire industries constitutes a megatrend. Industrial biotechnology is the innovation motor and driver for new and attractive value creation, enabling product ideas that seemed inconceivable few years ago. Using microorganisms in our Green & Urban Mining BioXtractor for extracting gold or rare earths from ore or waste streams, or metabolizing CO2 into precursor materials of bioplastics are just two examples developed by BRAIN.

As a cross-sector technology, industrial biotechnology integrates highly differing disciplines from natural and engineering sciences. Its “output” addresses multifaceted target markets in chemicals, energy or commodity and consumer goods industries addressing important tasks including providing healthier food by developing natural sugar or salt substitutes as in some of our programs.

Expectations for future bioeconomy markets are high. Business experts predict that sales from “green” chemicals will expand from around $140 billion to $610 billion over the 2010‒2025 period, reflecting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 11%. Global financial markets also regard the bioeconomy as a megatrend, leading to capital reallocations with a greater focus on socially responsible investments. The aim of such “impact investing” is to integrate factors like environmental protection, social acceptance and human well-being into future financing strategies.

BRAIN plays an active role in shaping the change towards a sustainable bioeconomy by developing and marketing product and process innovations for various B2B markets focusing on bioactive natural compounds and enzymes as well as customized high-performance microorganisms.

Broad Opportunities for Economic Progress

Andreas Förster (Dechema):

Dechema manages the “Innovation Hub” of the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Center ISC3, founded in 2017. Thus, we have become part of an international initiative to foster green and – reaching beyond the “12 principles” – sustainable chemistry. The chemical sector already plays an important role in solving key societal problems by using and developing innovative materials and products. This offers broad opportunities for economic progress especially in developing and emerging countries – whilst protecting health and the environment. Resource-efficient production does not only have a positive impact on natural resources, it can also reduce raw materials costs and costs for waste treatment and waste water disposal. Therefore, a sustainability-oriented chemical industry can make a major contribution to achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN. Business innovation is an integral part of the sustainable chemistry concept. Exchanging best practices around the globe can lead to new business ideas and value chains that are mutually beneficial and create employment at the same time as protecting the environment.

A Huge Business Opportunity

Christophe Le Ret (Umicore):

To be better adopted (and pay off), Green Chemistry needs to be not only environmentally, but also economically advantageous. Simply because almost no consumer is ready to pay more for the same – in greener – features, even if a vast majority is conscious of the urgency of the environmental need.

Behind this common sense is actually a huge business opportunity: design recyclable, reduce and valorize wastes and use efficient reactions are three opportunities to generate new and sustainable businesses while protecting the planet.

Let’s take olefin metathesis technology for instance, where Umicore has a strong competence: it is one of the most versatile and selective ways to build carbon-carbon bonds, the ultimate target of organic chemistry. It is also a way to transform non-edible feedstock into high performance materials and chemicals, to shorten the synthesis of complex pharmaceutical ingredients (and thus increase yields and reduce chemical wastes), to efficiently synthesize environmentally friendly pheromones, or as lately shown by Slugovc’s and Abbas’ teams to potentially recycle natural rubber waste.

If “design recyclable” means to plan when creating a product how it can be (more) efficiently recycled, it can also apply to all the ingredients of a chemical synthesis: recycling the precious metal of a catalyst is generally more effective when thoroughly thought before process scale up. If solvents cannot be fully avoided, they may generate more value by being recycled or valorized than when being disposed.

We worked on such a case with a pharmaceutical customer using a palladium containing homogeneous catalyst. And designing a way to separate first the used catalyst from the end-product, then most of the ligand from the metal and to finally recycle both ligand and palladium appeared to be – albeit complex – sustainable and cost efficient at commercial scale.