Since the late 1980s, the concept of sustainability has grown from corporate catchword to competitive advantage. According to a 2011 McKinsey Report[1], corporate reputation was supplanted as the most frequently cited reason for actively pursuing sustainability strategies. As data emerged, companies began viewing sustainability as the key to improving operational efficiency, reducing waste and lowering costs. Sustainability not only led to leaner operations but also better bottom-line results.

Spurred on by stricter governmental regulations, activist shareholders and global concern over climate change risk, companies today are doing significantly more to safeguard resources. Nevertheless, there is still more to be done.  We spoke with Professor David R. Shonnard (Sustainable Futures Institute and Dept. of Chemical Engineering at Michigan Technological University) about future trends and issues; and, how the RAPID Manufacturing Institute is helping transform processes in the chemicals, oil and gas and pulp and paper industries, thereby enhancing sustainability.

RMB: How is the Chemical Industry rising to the challenge of sustainability?

DS: For over a decade, the chemical industry has actively pursued sustainability strategies to improve performance and achieve both short-term and long-term goals. For example, the National Research Council published a 2006 report on defining a sustainability agenda for the chemical industry[2].  This report detailed how to move the industry from the current paradigm of fossil-based energy intensive processing to a future vision based on renewable energy and feedstocks and environmental sustainability. Both near-term (first 20 years of the transition) and long-term (from 20-100 years in the transition) actions were identified, including sustainability education, lifecycle assessments, green chemistry, and a move toward renewable fuels and feedstocks. Recently, the issue of global plastic waste is becoming more urgent and the chemical industry is joining in the solution through the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.  There are many other examples, such as green chemistry initiatives, high production volume toxicology programs, process safety and security, participation in discussions in climate change mitigation and adaptation, and many others too numerous to mention.    

RMB: By 2020, the market for “green” chemistry is expected to reach $100 billion globally, with North America seeing an increase from $3 billion to over $20 billion during the same period. What does that mean for the process industries?* 

DS: Cost, energy, product pressures from within and outside of industry as well as increasing R&D investments are causing positive shifts in how green chemistry is viewed by the process industries. Green chemistry is a paradigm shift in how chemistry can be used to redress damage done by improving environmental health and safety in a sustainable way. As a result, it is becoming a positive driver for increased safety, innovation, job growth, competitive advantage and even brand differentiation. 

RMB: What role does process Intensification (PI) and Modular Chemical Process Intensification (MCPI) play in sustainability?

DS: Process intensification includes many strategies to reduce costs of production, energy intensity, and emissions. Some strategies include combining multiple reaction and separation processes into a single unit, enhancing chemical and physical driving forces, and exchanging energy and waste streams internally in the process. Modular processing can manage investment risks through standardizing manufacturing of small-scale processes to achieve similar economic benefits as production at a larger scale. When deployed broadly, these MCPI improvements can reduce the chemical and petrochemical industry’s national energy and carbon footprints while also improving economics. RAPID’s focus area on conversion of renewable feedstocks holds potential for achieving long-term sustainability goals.  Modular chemical processes for distributed production of biofuels and bioproducts at sites of feedstock availability can reduce cost and safety concerns associated with long-haul transport, increase energy density of feedstocks, and improve local economies where feedstock is located.

RMB: How can we leverage Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) technologies for greater benefit in PI?

DS: RAPID’s focus area on modeling and simulation uses these important technologies by collecting accurate data to enable better decision-making and by developing modeling tools for design, control, and analysis of RAPID processes and products.  In particular, analyses can be applied with a systems perspective by using a model-based approach that integrates process simulation of new designs coupled with assessments across all sustainability dimensions.  Ideally, analyses should be conducted with a lifecycle perspective in order to capture both upstream and downstream impacts in addition to the MCPI processes themselves.  Analyses can be conducted early during conceptual design to screen alternatives and then later during detailed design when specific MCPI strategies are considered. Comparisons to “business-as-usual” designs and products can establish further justification for commercial deployment. 

RMB: What excites you most about advancements in sustainability as we enter the next decade where PI can make an impact?   

DS: I am most excited about the potential for achieving sustainability in the chemical industry through MCPI applications in three areas: (1) conversion of woody biomass to biofuels, (2) chemical recycling of waste plastics, and (3) production of biogas and biomethane from anaerobic digestion of food waste and animal manure.  All of these areas represent opportunities for significant gains in sustainability through greenhouse emission reductions and circularity of material flows.  Other areas are also very important such as applying principles of green chemistry and engineering to process and product development.  And, we cannot forget the important role that education can play in achieving sustainability, so that is a high priority for industry professionals and in STEM education. 

 RMB: What are the biggest challenges you see for chemical companies that don’t adopt PI or MCPI technologies and/or equipment?

 DS: Most, if not all, major chemical companies will want to adopt PI or MCPI technologies that emerge from RAPID and from other R&D efforts as the economic benefits and energy/emissions savings are clearly demonstrated. I also foresee adoption encouraged by chemical industry associations, whose goals are to improve sustainability industry-wide.  Adopting PI and/or MCPI, is the future for American Manufacturers if they want to remain innovative, competitive and retain greater control over the quality of their products.   


Professor Shonnard recently conducted a webinar on sustainable development and process intensification in the chemical industry. To view and register for this archived webinar, please click here.

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[2] National Research Council. 2006. Sustainability in the Chemical Industry: Grand Challenges and Research Needs. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press., ISBN: 0-309-09571-9

*Source: The American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) and the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3)