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Chemical feedstocks for sustainable industry

Chemical feedstocks for sustainable industry

Written by Matthew Royle, Research Assistant

On the 1st of December, the Royal Society of Chemistry hosted a one-day in person event ‘chemical feedstocks for sustainable industry’ at Burlington house, a pertinent topic in the chemical industry right now. Despite being a member of the royal society since I was an undergraduate, which is a longer time than I would like to think about, it was my first visit to Burlington house. I am writing my reflections from the event to highlight some of the work presented on the day.

Figure 1: Entrance to Burlington House.

The first session focused on utilising biomass residues for a broad number of chemicals. A mix of biomass feedstocks was discussed with some novel and other more established conversion technologies. Mireia Mora (Autonomous University of Barcelona) showcased the use of a two-step pyrolysis process to valorise woody biomass, an example of placed-based solutions for sustainable chemical production. Their two-step pyrolysis process specifically targeted wood that is often not utilised and abundant for the region of Barcelona. Miranda Lindsey-Flynn from Sonichem presented their award winning biorefinery process, creating ultrasonic fractions from sawdust to produce platform biochemicals. Miranda provided an overview of their journey from a spin-off company to a pilot scale plant and the challenges they have faced along the way. Steven Brown from Scott Bader provided an industry perspective of trying to switch to more sustainable feedstocks for their products. Steven emphasised the need to provide chemicals that are not only more sustainable, but do not compromise on quality and can compete with the cost of producing fossil-based chemicals. A number of challenges were also presented by the speakers, one poignant point was the difficulty in cost for new chemicals to comply with UK REACH regulations, adjustments to regulations can make new chemicals more cost competitive. A welcome lunch break and informative poster session concluded the first session, where I was able to discuss circular chemistry with many new faces and some familiar ones too!

The second session kicked off with the topic of oleochemicals. Oscar Kelly discussed BYK additives’ production of clay-catalysts for processing platform chemicals and their ongoing Life Cycle Assessment of said catalysts. BYK’s clay catalysts provide a competitive alternative to classic zeolite catalysts, particularly for oleochemical processing and plastic pyrolysis. Tony Heslop gave a strategic view of BASF’s shift towards a circular production of chemicals. BASF are exploring a number of pragmatic approaches for defossilised carbon chemicals, emphasising the need to explore as many options as possible for sustainable chemical production to ensure secure supply chains. Tony gave mention to BASF’s bio-naphtha production, electrification of their operations powered by renewable energy on their Verbund site and their flue2chem project, utilising carbon capture technology to convert waste industrial gases into surfactants and coatings.

After a caffeine filled recharge, the fitting closing session ‘end-of-life plastic recycling’ got underway. The final session was perhaps the broadest in terms of topic of conversation, from early stage enabling technology development for chemical production, to the implementation of recycled plastic products in the automotive sector. Matthew Jones (University of Bath) discussed the role of chemical recycling for treating plastic waste, stressing that chemical recycling should not compete with mechanical recycling. The catalysts designed by the Jones group are designed to target mixed plastic waste streams to produce specific polymers. Chris Mason presented the analysis from Appleyard Lees and the link between patent trends for chemical recycling and meaningful progress made in the field, it was interesting to observe the trend in technological trends from a patent perspective and Appleyard Lees’ recent release, the Green Innovation report, will be a fascinating read.

Figure 2: Matthew Jones showing how a circular approach can be applied to chemical recycling.

Despite the broad range of topics and different priorities presented by each speaker, it was clear to me (to quote an often-referred phrase), ‘there is no silver bullet’ for replacing fossil carbon in our chemicals, but positive change is being carried out across the chemical sector. The challenges are great, and the pathways are complex, however it is encouraging to see at the heart of all the solutions presented today a circular economy of chemicals continues to be the most logical approach for the industry.