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Oil, the world’s most precious commodity, or ‘black gold’ as it’s sometimes called, has definitely been the driving force behind the astonishing economic and technological developments we’ve seen in the past century.
This diverse mixture of organic molecules took millions of years to be formed and is a true treasure from a chemical point of view. So we have to use it wisely. Claiming that this resource can be easily replaced is much too simplistic. But it’s not hard to see why simply “burning” it might not be the best way to take advantage of it.
Indeed oil represents an amazing starting material for the synthesis of a wide range of materials like polymers, specialty chemicals and even pharmaceutical products.
photo by Tétine
Ideally, oil ought to be ‘reserved’ for the chemical industry to make products with added value out of it, but this is not realistic. Oil will be used as a fuel for many more years to come, and will remain one of the main causes of fluctuations in economic strength and consumer sentiment. When the economy goes well, oil consumption increases and gas prices rise. This is directly felt by consumers and industry, causing a slowdown in economic activity. We’ve seen this cyclical phenomenon over and over again, and it will probably intensify as oil becomes rarer every day.
The important thing here is not to overreact: stopping the use of oil would disrupt the entire system, and is not a realistic option at all. On the other hand, the chemical industry has launched initiatives to replace oil as a starting material wherever possible. Not just for ‘the greater cause’ but simply because a sustainable production process based on renewable resources gives a solid economic advantage when oil prices are high and reduces the risk of high fluctuations on profit margins.
This is another example of how sustainable chemistry can achieve a win-win situation for the chemical industry, consumers and the planet at the same time. (see my article on rare earth recycling)
I’ll give some examples of oil-consuming processes that have been turned around into sustainable activities to illustrate the recent initiatives that have been undertaken to deal with this problem:
Solvay developed an innovative and sustainable production process for epichlorohydrin this year. This product is mainly used as a key raw material in the manufacture of epoxy resins, , used as adhesive in automobile, ship, electronics, windmill and aircraft manufacturing.
In the past it was synthesized using propylene (obtained from oil) as a starting material. Now however, Solvay has found a process to produce this material from glycerol – a side product from the synthesis of bio-diesel. This process is thus not only green (-60% CO2 emission and 8 times fewer chlorinated discharges) and sustainable (renewable supply of glycerol) but also very attractive from an economic standpoint - since propylene is also needed as a starting material for the production of the very important polymer ‘polypropylene’ that cannot be produced any other way.
Akzo Nobel has done a lot of research to develop water-based paints with the same properties as the traditional ‘organic solvent’-based paints that caused health issues and used petroleum derivatives.
DSM is using more and more biotechnology-based solutions like enzyme catalysis to increase the effectiveness of some of their production processes.
BASF is using and producing ionic liquids as solvents for the synthesis of various polymers instead of using volatile organic solvents (petroleum products) with a much bigger environmental impact.
Evonik is switching to biotech processes to some extent; “to become less dependent on crude oil”.
Dow is producing more products derived from natural materials such as polyols found in soybean oil instead of petroleum oil products.
Bayer has also developed natural oil-derived polyols for use in rigid polyurethane insulating foams to reduce their consumption of petroleum products.
Codexis, a biotechnology company, is developing novel enzymes that can be used to make various pharmaceutical intermediates without using any petroleum-derived solvents or precious metal catalysts.
image via Co.Exist
This doesn’t mean oil will be replaced altogether as one of the main starting materials for industrial processes, but it shows that the chemical industry is seeing the advantages of sustainable processes for some particular applications. For other products, the advantages of oil fractions as starting material are too important to ignore and oil will remain the ‘go-to’ resource for as long as it takes to develop a competitive process based on an alternative resource. For some products all it takes is a high oil price, for others there is simply no technical solution at the moment to use any other starting material.
But slowly the industry is examining alternatives to oil, and it is to be hoped that the changeover to a less oil- consuming industry will thus come gradually and without big economic shocks – just like the shift from charcoal and steam, to oil, to electricity… The inventiveness of mankind is often underestimated although people have been shown over and over again to be very creative and adept at problem solving when faced with big challenges. Throughout their evolution, people have always found solutions, and there is no reason to think this time will be any different.
Never has mankind possessed so much knowledge and understanding of its surroundings, so if a country can put people on the moon 25 years after the invention of the first decent airplane and this without access to powerful computers, our high- tech society can certainly find a way around the challenge that is currently unfolding: changing the way we use our resources.
Change what can and should be changed so that we can keep unchanged what can’t be changed is in my opinion the important ‘middle way’ between ‘green radicalism’ and ‘blind capitalism’ and should provide the smoothest transition towards a more sustainable society.