The vision of the Centre is to transform the UK’s £32 billion chemical industry into a future-proof, fossil-independent and environmentally friendly circular economy, by developing sector-wide solutions for the efficient recycling and recovery of olefins and their complementary feedstocks to replace the current linear olefins supply-demand network.
The Centre will take leadership to tackle the national & global challenges of reducing carbon emissions and achieving resource security not only within the chemical industries, but also impacting a wider range of sectors and communities that use, distribute and recycle chemical-based products.
Why Olefins are important?
Olefins, such as ethylene and propylene, account for over 70% of all organic chemical production, used for the synthesis of a wide range of intermediate products, including polymers, chemical fibres, solvents, synthetic rubber and high-value speciality chemicals. These intermediates are subsequently used by other manufacturing and industrial sectors to produce useable end products.
Why we need a circular economy for the chemical industry?
With an average annual turnover of ~ £32 billion, corresponding to a gross value added (GVA) of £12.6 billion in 2019 (6.6% of total UK manufacturing GVA / 1% of GDP) and 99,000 direct jobs, the UK chemical sector makes a significant contribution to the UK’s economy.
The chemical industry is currently resources-, emission- and pollution- intensive, and incompatible with UK emissions and sustainable growth policies. The industry no longer has the option of business as usual, and we must adopt a circular economy approach to address the following challenges.
Current olefin production is almost exclusively based on catalytic cracking of fossil resources (e.g. natural gas, crude oil). Olefins production consumes 60%+ of global primary petrochemicals feedstocks. It is also an energy intensive process, accounting for 30% of the chemical’s sector total energy use. The new circular chemical economy will enable the production of olefins and their complementary feedstocks from captured CO2, biomass and recycled waste driven by renewable energy, removing its dependency on fossil fuels.
Current olefin production accounts for 25% of direct CO2 emissions for the chemical sector, whilst, downstream olefin conversion and use can be estimated to contribute at least 7% of the 66 Mt/year industrial CO2 emissions in the UK. The new circular chemical economy offers a unique opportunity to capture industrial CO2 emissions and reuse them as a feedstock to generate added-value streams, aligning to the UK CCUS Deployment Pathway defined in the Industrial Strategy and providing effective solutions to decarbonise a wide range of industrial sectors.
The chemical industry has been long recognised as a heavily polluting sector, applying to the production, use and disposal of the chemical products all together. Currently there is very little chemical recycling of spent olefin-derived materials resulting in high volumes of waste. The new circular chemical economy will provide a holistic approach to address the waste recycling challenges for olefin-derived materials not only limited to polymers, but also for chemical fibres, solvents, paints and synthetic rubbers, etc., which have been previously overlooked.
Despite the strong desire from the chemical sector to improve the circularity of its processes, existing initiatives have been mostly based on specific/isolated product lines, with limited scope for wider application. The overall novelty of our programme is the development of a sector-wide solution with deep circularity interventions, by focusing on the resources flow of olefin—the raw material for 70% of all organic chemical production. It represents a fundamental paradigm shift away from the current make-use-dispose model, requiring scientific innovations at all levels, starting from the development of new disruptive technologies (Theme 1), their integration into existing processes and evaluation of whole system impacts (Theme 2), to the identification of non-technical barriers and opportunities and how they can be overcome/realised (Theme).