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Sustainability in the Chemical Industry: Grand Challenges and Research Needs
other operations through green engineering.3 Achieving this grand challenge ideally provides production of both basic and fine chemicals in a less hazardous environment for humans and ecosystems, uses less energy, and lowers costs of production. Over the next twenty years this will involve replacing harmful solvents or improving catalytic selectivity and efficiency in chemical reactions that also provides cost savings. This area will grow in importance in the long term as fossil fuels are phased out of use and alternative and innovative approaches are required.
While chemists can make most any molecule no matter how structurally complex, they need to develop with their engineering partners lower energy reaction pathways for current synthetic processes, and more environmentally benign solvent systems with higher yield efficiencies and less toxic waste.
2. Life Cycle Analysis
Today, there continue to be gaps in the way that chemistry and its impact on global systems is thought about. There is a need to understand the long-term impacts of chemicals in the environment—such as persistence, bioaccumulation, global warming potential, or ozone depletion—and to account for such properties within a large complex systems analysis. This involves having a keen understanding of the metabolism of chemical products—that is, their industrial ecology4—from the extraction of raw materials and creation of products, to their use and management of any resulting wastes. Life cycle analytical tools are especially needed for comparing the total environmental impact of products generated from different processing routes and under different operating conditions through the full life cycle. This is another area that is already being explored, but will play an increasingly significant role in the chemical industry in the longer term as fossil fuels are phased out of use and application of green chemistry and engineering practices become critical.
Improvements are needed in the quantity and quality of data required for such comparisons and in the approach used to evaluate life cycle metrics. There needs to be an appropriate understanding of the methodology of life cycle analysis, the influence of the life cycle inventory data on the
Ritter, S. K. 2003. A Green Agenda for Engineering. Chemical and Engineering News. 81(29):30–32.
Frosch, R. A. 1995. The Industrial Ecology of the 21st Century. Scientific American 273(3):178–181.