Exceed environmental expectations

The chemical industry is making environmental progress but needs stretch goals, says Mark Rosenzweig, in this month's From the Editor column.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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Leading chemical companies aren’t just talking about biofeedstocks but are building plants relying on them, as this month’s cover story (Biofeedstocks see real growth) details. While economic considerations — if not immediate outright savings, at least insulation from the long-term cost and supply pressures posed by conventional petroleum- or gas-based raw materials — obviously come into play, the moves also reflect the greater emphasis some manufacturers are placing on doing their part for the environment and sustainability.

DuPont, for instance, says that it uses 40% less energy in making diols from corn instead of petroleum and reckons it cuts greenhouse gas emissions by more than half. Dow, which aims to make polyethylene in Brazil from sugar-cane-derived ethanol, says the project boasts about one-seventh the CO2 footprint of traditional polyethylene production.

Prospective biofeedstock-based benefits aside, the U.S. chemical industry  has already made impressive strides in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), Arlington, Va., which includes the largest U.S. chemical companies and which insists members adhere to its Responsible Care program, says that companies have cut their greenhouse gas intensity by 5% between 2003 and 2005, and more than 30% since 1992. Likewise, the companies have boosted their energy efficiency by nearly 28% since 1992, and cut energy consumption by 141 trillion Btus from 2003 to 2005. ACC makes consolidated industry performance data public via www.responsiblecare-us.com.

While we certainly should applaud such efforts, we should push for even greater strides.

Indeed, chemical companies would do well to emulate the approach taken by SKF, Göteborg, Sweden. That maker of bearings, seals, lubrication systems, etc., launched an initiative in 2005 called BeyondZero. As the name implies, this aims to reduce the environmental impact of its operations and ultimately to produce an overall positive effect. A key aspect is going beyond the company’s internal operations and developing products and services that help customers improve their performance.

Sounds idealistic, but SKF is actually showing how it can be done. At a September press briefing in Philadelphia, the company discussed a new series of energy-efficient ball and tapered roller bearings that offer the same life as the company’s regular such bearings but at least a 30% energy savings. As Tom Johnstone, president and CEO of SKF explained, that translates to lower energy consumption for devices using the bearings as well as reduced equipment temperatures and decreased total cost of ownership. If every electric motor in the U.S. and Europe had the energy-efficient ball bearings, the energy savings would exceed SKF’s total global energy consumption and would equal the energy consumption of 3 million Swedish households for a month, according to Johnstone.

Both the energy-efficient ball bearings, which likely will initially appear in industrial motors, and the tapered roller bearings will be available by the end of this year.

Mechanical components clearly can provide follow-on benefits to products incorporating them, but many chemicals also go into finished products and so we have the opportunity, too, to provide such a positive ripple effect on the environment.

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