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Chemical Manufacturers Can Save the World (And Make Money Doing It)

By: Elisabeth Rosen Elisabeth rosen
• September 2022

Using more efficient, carbon-saving technology could double revenue for chemicals companies, while maintaining the status quo will lead to “climate chaos.”

Those are the findings of a new report by Systemiq, a company that advises on sustainability, and the Centre for Global Commons at the University of Tokyo.

Chemicals manufacturing accounts for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Only steel and cement produce more.

“As the former CEO of a chemicals company, I firmly believe a planet positive chemicals industry IS possible and this is a pivotal moment for the industry to redefine its future,” Chad Holliday, former CEO of the global chemical company DuPont and former Chairman of Shell, told reporters.

How should chemical manufacturers like DuPont and Shell adapt? Reducing emissions will probably cost less than you think. Companies can adopt techniques already available to make production more efficient, such as plastic recycling and smarter fertilizer usage. Factory optimization software can also be used to make data-driven decisions that reduce emissions.

To understand the benefits of the digital approach, consider desulfurization at a refinery. While the process is meant to remove sulfur, sulfur emissions can come about as a result. Machine learning models can study the process data in real time and recommend set points that minimize such emissions.

Circular approaches can also reduce total demand for chemicals by up to 31% by 2050, according to the report, which recommends reusing and recycling chemicals or switching certain chemicals for lower-emissions alternatives. However, one challenge is variability in raw materials. You don’t know what you’ll get; if engineers don’t know how to use a material with a certain composition in production, they will often discard it. That’s where digital technology can play a role, helping plants adapt to real-life variability. Engineers at the receiving end can use digital twins to figure out how to use what they’ve received in the most efficient way, without having to resort to costly and high-emissions physical tests. This ultimately puts more money in the hands of producers, alongside reduced emissions.

While the report contains its share of doomsday forecasts, scientists are ultimately hopeful. By 2050, the industry could reinvent itself as a solution by becoming a net absorber of carbon dioxide instead of an emitter. It’s up to manufacturers to make the move towards a more sustainable—and profitable—future.