Increased petrochemical production against the promise of green chemistry


World oil consumption decreased by about 9 percent in 2020, as the pandemic has reduced business and leisure travel, factory production and freight transportation. This sharp drop has accelerated the current shift from fossil fuels to renewable energies.

US government forecasts show that the use of petroleum for transportation, industry, construction, heating and electricity is falling and will continue to decline in the years to come. This trend has huge implications for the oil industry: as the International Energy Agency observed in 2020, “No oil and gas company will be spared by clean energy transitions. “

It makes sense as a business strategy, but here’s the problem: Researchers are working to develop more sustainable replacements for petrochemicals, including bio-based plastics and specialty chemicals. However, petrochemicals can be made at a fraction of the cost. As a biochemist working on the development of environmentally friendly versions of valuable chemicals, I fear that without adequate support, the pioneers green chemistry research will find it difficult to compete with fossil fuels. Many of these companies are trying to offset their losses by stimulate the production of petrochemicals derived from petroleum and natural gas. Today, about 80 percent of every barrel of oil is used to make gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, with the rest going to petrochemicals. As the demand for petroleum fuels gradually decreases, the amount of petroleum used for that “other” share will increase.

Pivot towards petrochemicals

Petrochemicals are used in millions of products, from plastics, detergents, shampoos and makeup to industrial solvents, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and carpets. Over the next 20 years, the oil company BP predicts that this market will grow by 16 to 20%.

Oil companies are mobilizing to increase petrochemical production. In the Saudi city of Yanbu, for example, two state-owned enterprises, Saudi Aramco and Sabic, are planning a new complex that will produce 9 million metric tons of petrochemicals each year, turning Arabian light crude oil into lubricants, solvents and other products.

These changes are happening across the global industry. Several Chinese companies are building factories that convert about 40 percent of their oil into chemicals such as p-xylene, a building block for industrial chemicals. Exxon-Mobil started expanding petrochemical research and development in 2014.

The promise of green chemistry

At the same time, in the United States and other industrialized countries, health, environmental and safety concerns are leading to the search for sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based chemicals. Drilling for oil and natural gas, the use of petrochemicals, and the burning of fossil fuels have spread environmental and Human health implications. High oil consumption also increases national security issues.

Today, about 80% of every barrel of oil is used to make gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, with the rest going to petrochemicals.

The Department of Energy has conducted fundamental research on bioproducts through its national laboratories and university funding Bioenergy research centers. These laboratories develop sustainable plant-based biofuels and household bioproducts, including petrochemical substitutes, through a process called “metabolic engineering”.

Researchers like me use enzymes to transforming hardwood waste cultures and other sources of sugars that can be consumed by microorganisms – typically bacteria and fungi such as yeast. These microorganisms then turn the sugars into molecules, much like yeast converts sugar into ethanol, causing it to ferment into beer.

In the creation of bioproducts, instead of creating ethanol, sugar is transformed into other molecules. We can design these metabolic pathways to create solvents; components in widely used polymers such as nylon; perfumes; and many other products.

My lab is exploring ways to design enzymes, catalysts produced by living cells that cause or accelerate biochemical reactions. We want to produce enzymes that can be put into modified bacteria, in order to make structurally complex natural products.

The overall goal is to bring carbon and oxygen together in a predictable way, similar to the chemical structures created by petroleum-based chemistry. But the green approach uses natural substances instead of oil or natural gas as building blocks.

It is not a new concept. Enzymes in bacteria are used to make an important antibiotic, erythromycin, first discovered in 1952.

All this takes place in a biorefinery – a facility that uses natural inputs such as algae, crop waste or specially grown energy crops such as switchgrass and converts them into substances of commercial value, as petroleum refineries do with petroleum. After fermenting the sugars with modified microorganisms, a biorefinery separates and purifies the microbial cells to produce a range of bio-based products, including food additives, animal feed, perfumes, chemicals and plastics.

In response to the global plastic pollution crisis, a research priority is “polymer upcycling. “The use of bio-based raw materials can transforming single-use water bottles in materials that are more recyclable than petroleum-based versions because they are easier to heat and remould.

Reduce the cost gap

To replace polluting goods and practices, sustainable alternatives must be competitive. For example, many plastics currently end up in landfills because they are cheaper to manufacture than to recycle.

The production of petroleum-based plastics ranks third in energy consumption in the world, after energy production and transport.

High costs also slow progress towards a bioeconomy. Today, research, development and manufacturing are more expensive for bioproducts than for established petrochemical versions.

Governments can use laws and regulations to drive change. In 2018, the European Union set an ambitious sourcing target 30 percent of all plastics from renewable sources by 2030. In addition to reducing plastic pollution, this step will save energy: the production of petroleum-based plastics ranks third in energy consumption in the world, after energy production and transport.

Promotion of bio-based products is compatible with that of President Joe Biden whole-of-government approach to climate change. Investments in bioproduction could also help create modern manufacturing jobs in rural areas, a Biden goal American employment plan.

But the investments of the oil companies in the design of new chemicals are widening, and the gap between the cost of petroleum products and those derived from emerging green technologies continues to widen. More efficient technologies could eventually flood the existing petrochemical markets, continue to lower the cost of petrochemicals and make competition even more difficult.

In my opinion, the growing climate crisis and growing plastic pollution make it urgent to wean the global economy off oil. I believe that finding substitutes for petroleum-based chemicals in many of the products we use on a daily basis can help the world achieve this goal.

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license.


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