Climate solutions can encumber the biobased cycle

Posted on 19 May 2020

Unseen dumping prices among energy suppliers, an economy that is currently collapsing like a house of cards worldwide... It is particularly interesting to find out to what extent these signals have been triggered by different choices in research and innovation that have been made in different areas, worldwide, over the past decades. So far, we have blindly assumed that they are separate from them. And yet, we see more and more signs that choices made for a more sustainable world are now at the root of the disruption that we now see worldwide and that will force us to adapt our research strategy.

Let's start with plastics. Plastics have been in the line of fire for the last few years. The images of dead fish and seabirds with stomachs full of plastic waste, of rivers and beaches flooded by a plastic sea... They have forced the technological research institutes to go full steam ahead with research that can provide a solution to this kind of pollution. In doing so, they have put a lot of effort into the development of alternative plastics that can be bio-degraded under different conditions. But the research into solutions from the user - the human - is comparatively underdeveloped. He continues to use his plastic en masse and simply throw it away. As a result, plastic waste often becomes a mixture of the many different plastics needed for the wide variety of applications. This has huge consequences for the treatment of the waste, because in this way bio-based and/or biodegradable plastics are mixed with petroleum-based and/or non-degradable plastics.

Plastics are also inextricably linked to the chemical industry. The footprint (CO2 emissions) of the chemical industry, and in particular the plastics industry, has in recent decades encouraged research groups to look for natural raw materials that could be an alternative to petroleum-based materials. This contribution to the greening of the chemical industry can only be realised to the maximum if the end-of-life treatments of these new plastics are also carried out correctly.

By working on these two tracks in recent decades - the conversion to bio-based/biodegradable alternatives (replace) and recycling (recycle) - researchers focusing on sustainable chemistry hope to contribute to making our society more sustainable. After all, we see that the global plastics industry continues to grow and that there is also a need for plastics. After all, we must not forget that plastics do have an added value and a complete recycling of plastics could be counterproductive. The losses in the food chain would be dramatic if the packaging value of plastic for food were not used. And now that it has recently become clear that plastic is just about the only material that can provide effective protection for health workers and citizens, it has also been proven that we have to take into account not only the negative impact of plastic on the environment, but also the positive impact on the health of our society.

While the chemists are addressing this challenge, we are also seeing how research groups around the world are making great efforts in the field of renewable energy to find a solution to the energy/climate dichotomy in order to make our energy supply more sustainable. This is happening on several fronts: new battery materials, for example, which should ensure that future mobility will be largely oil-free through the electrification of the vehicle fleet. This then goes hand in hand with research activities to better integrate different methods of generating renewable energy, such as solar and wind energy.

But perhaps even more important in this context is that the industry will follow suit and we will see a shift to alternative production methods. More and more processes are being electrified and even switched on in flexible production systems that allow the peaks and troughs in renewable energy to be flattened, the industrial electrification or Power-2-X.

This search for a sustainable use of energy also extends to chemistry. Research centres all over the world are making huge efforts to make traditional chemical processes - which are often true energy guzzlers - more energy efficient. New catalysts (the enzymes of chemistry) are already making some energy-intensive processes up to twenty times more efficient.

All these interventions will undoubtedly contribute to humanity's eventual success in putting a heavy brake on the use of fossil fuels, first and foremost coal but also oil reserves. As a result, they will be able to remain in the soil longer, and possibly even never be mined. Incidentally, the IEA 2020 report already shows a significant decline in energy generation from oil and coal.

And then we come back to what we see around us today: the economy going through a global crisis, oil prices going below zero because a number of countries are playing strategic games... Is there a correlation? Are we not getting a shifted baseline because of the different activities that all have to benefit the climate objectives? Shouldn't we, as a knowledge society, learn lessons from this and reassess whether we are using our people and resources in the right way in our research agendas?

The question we now have to ask ourselves is whether the choices we have made in the research agendas still hold up in this situation. If we motivate the developments in the various disciplines, then we are always assuming the same situation and predictions. In reality, however, we see that, due to the rapid evolutions in all areas, the starting position to motivate certain research strategies changes much faster than the experts themselves had calculated.

This is visible, for example, in biobased developments. We started with plastics in this article. They consume barely 5% of the annual oil production. That is different for the need of oil for the primary energy supply. The only thing we see there is how electrification, insulation and much more efficient processes in chemistry are visibly and rapidly reducing the need for oil, and hence the demand for oil. As a result, we can assume that the predicted scarcity of oil as a feedstock will occur much later than predictions on which the biobased economy is based up to now. It can therefore be predicted that oil scarcity cannot be a motive to look for alternatives to plastics. However, what needs to be done is to recycle these plastics so that at the end of their useful life, these materials do not cause unnecessary pollution to the environment on earth, in the sea or as CO2 in the air.

Shouldn't we then focus further on alternatives to petroleum in the production of plastics? Maybe so, because the conclusions of this story can be completely different. The efforts made to replace fossil fuels with biobased ones could finally accelerate the phase-out of fossil fuels. The large market shares for oil are in decline, investing in fossil fuels will no longer be profitable, and once the disinvestment from fossil fuels is a fact, the plastics industry with its meagre 5% share will not be able to sustain the oil sector. Only bio-based alternatives will then be able to provide continuity. With the additional advantage that biobased can, due to its potential, be extracted much more on a local scale and therefore becomes less vulnerable to global long chains. COVID-19 has taught us that too.

Can we draw conclusions from this? Perhaps the most important one is that we must be prepared to align our portfolio for developments and research strategies with a different vision of the future.

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