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Chemical companies continue to drive down energy costs. Even though the ‘low hanging fruit’ has already been picked by many chemical companies, most firms say they see significant further opportunities to drive up energy efficiency in their operations.

A report by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI; Oslo) published in February 2008 concludes that the most cost-effective way nations may curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is by boosting energy efficiency in industry, transportation and residential sectors (CW, Feb. 25, p. 32). http://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/publications/Investing_Energy_Productivity/

Some environmentalists challenge the assumption that energy efficiency is the basis for tackling climate change and suggest that tuning processes to make them “less bad” is akin to resetting the deck chairs on the Titanic. Chemists such as Michael Braungart, founder and director of consulting firm EPEA (Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency; Hamburg, Germany), propose instead that chemical firms should introduce systems such as cradle-to-cradle recycling of substances that can enable near carbon-neutral production. Examples of cradle-to-cradle chemical processing includes Shaw Carpet Inc.’s take back of polypropylene (PP) carpets and reuse of PP in subsequent carpets. Few cradle-to-cradle systems such as this exist.

Dow Chemical for one has entered into a 10-year commitment to cut its energy intensity per unit of product manufacturer by 2.5% each year. Dow states that through energy efficiency projects since the early 1990s it has generated savings of $4 billion. During the same period DuPont has saved about $2 billion.  

BASF several years ago introduced Eco-efficiency Analysis to compare similar products and processes according to environmental impact and cost over a product’s lifetime. Eco-efficiency analysis is applied in order to use as few materials and energy as possible during production, and keep emissions as low as possible, BASF says. BASF says by 2008 it had applied eco-efficiency analysis to more than 300 products.

Leading chemical firms are being assisted in their actions to improve energy efficiency in the production and delivery of chemicals by national and international bodies such as Cefic and the American Chemistry Council. Industry’s Responsible Care program, in particular, addresses best practice for improving energy efficiency. The implementation of Six Sigma efficiency programs has also markedly improved energy efficiency in many companies. Government agencies are also a source of advice on energy efficiency best practice. This website in conjunction with U.K. government agency Envirowise is offering chemical firms free advice relating to energy efficiency (see Environmental Q&A on home page).

Catalysts comprised of various reactive metals increasingly are providing more efficient ways of undertaking chemical reactions. Biocatalytic systems such as those that employ enzymes have the potential to be more sustainable than traditional catalytic chemistry as typically they operate at or near to ambient temperatures and so consume relatively little energy during production. Enzymatic systems increasingly are being used by the chemical industry to undertake chiral syntheses such as may be required in the manufacture of some pharmaceuticals.

Continuous processes, prevalent in the commodity chemicals arena, are becoming more widely used among specialty and fine chemicals producers in place of batch processes. Continuous processes offer significant advantages in energy efficiency.

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