Water/Wastewater / Energy Efficiency / Environmental Health & Safety

Sustainability Gets the Spotlight

Chemical makers are striving for improvements along many fronts

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

Sustainability has many dimensions for chemical manufacturers. Reflecting this, a number of major companies, including AkzoNobel, Eastman and Dow, have broad-based initiatives, while other firms are focusing particularly on using renewable resources and sustainable processes.

AkzoNobel, Amsterdam, relies on a program called Operational Eco-efficiency to disseminate sustainability experiences from different plants company-wide.

"While each site has its own team dedicated to improving eco-efficiency, Operational Eco-efficiency involves an outside team coming in with experience from other sites. Details about best practices also are available on the company intranet, and regular webinars are also used to pass on important information on subjects such as sustainable solutions in packaging and using waste as a byproduct," explains Johan Widheden, Gothenburg, Sweden-based senior sustainability specialist.

This sharing of ideas is coming together in a major way at a project in Ashington, U.K., where a £100-million ($166-million) paint manufacturing plant currently is under construction. Designed to be one of the most sustainable plants in the world when it opens next year, Ashington will produce 100 million L/yr of paint yet aims to achieve 100% re-use of water and 90% reuse of solvents. On top of that, the plant will consume 60% less energy to produce each liter of paint, reduce VOC emissions by 75% and cut waste by 50%. A minimum of 10% of site energy will come from on-site low-carbon sources such as biomass, photovoltaic panels and solar thermal water heating.


"This sharing of ideas has also been important at our specialty chemicals plant in Stenungsund, Sweden, which manufactures ethylene amine (Figure 1). Here they have cut energy consumption by 20% over the last two years. Lots of information about the processes and projects undertaken to achieve this have come via the Operational Eco-efficiency program," adds Widheden.

Alongside this program, AkzoNobel's CEO last year launched Planet Possible. "The drive here is to create greater value from fewer resources," notes Widheden.

The initiative has three targets. First is to reduce by 25% by 2020 the impact on climate that AkzoNobel's products have over their lifecycle. "Here we are working with our customers to see how we can help them use our paints or coatings more efficiently," he explains. Successful solutions include a new paint for ships that reduces drag and, therefore, fuel consumption, and an additive that allows asphalt to be laid at a lower temperature, cutting energy costs and fume emissions.

The second target is to ensure that by 2020 20% of the company's revenue comes from products with a sustainability advantage over their main competitors in the market. To this end, the company annually assesses all products for sustainability over their whole lifecycle — with a third party reviewing the process and results.

Finally, AkzoNobel is using a new index to measure whole business sustainability. "Called the Resource Efficiency Index, this is an expression of efficiency in terms of cradle-to-grave carbon footprint, divided by group profit. It measures how we create more value from fewer resources," he concludes.

ENERGY EMPHASIS
At Eastman Chemical, Kingsport, Tenn., the drive is on to reduce energy intensity by 20% by 2020 (Figure 2). To this end, the firm raised its corporate energy budget, which is focused on improving operational efficiency and reducing environmental footprint, to $11 million last year and maintained that level for 2014.

A corporate energy management team spearheads these efforts. "In 2013, Eastman expanded the sites in the energy program to include some of the acquired Solutia sites. Sixteen of the company's manufacturing sites are now included, with plans to continue adding sites to the program. The team is led by a designated certified energy manager who regularly coordinates with Eastman's executive team, including the sustainability council," says Sharon Nolen, manager, corporate energy program.

Nolen leads monthly teleconferences that include input from Eastman sites around the world. Representatives from the technology and energy procurement departments also take part. Typical agenda items cover available resources (both internal and external) and a review of capital plans. In addition, all team members give a brief highlight from their sites.

"There are also special meetings dedicated to a specific topic. For example, we recently had a meeting devoted to more-energy-efficient steam traps. Two sites which were considered to have best practices (identified through an internal survey) and the company's expert on steam traps discussed the best practices, the latest technology, and addressed questions," she notes.

Data for energy intensity are pulled monthly from an online SAP system; significant changes are analyzed and addressed.

Nolen can okay energy efficiency projects costing less than $1 million that meet a specified threshold of return. More expensive projects go to the vice president and general manager of worldwide manufacturing support for approval.

Eastman has set aside a capital budget in excess of $8 million specifically for energy projects in 2014. It has allocated an additional $3 million to its two largest sites for maintenance programs that reduce energy use.

The approach is bearing fruit. For example, last year the company invested $500,000 in ultrasonic flow meters to monitor utility process liquid flow to various users as well as condensate return to the powerhouses on one site. Historically, the site primarily has relied on steam flow meters to quantify steam demand.

"The benefits of improved metering include increased billing accuracy and improving our knowledge of where major energy consumers exist in the plant to help target/prioritize energy assessment efforts," says Lisa Lambert, Tennessee site energy coordinator. "It also allows us to perform tests on major energy-consuming equipment such as steam turbines and energy pumps, while correlating area utility meter data with daily production helps forecast utility demand throughout the plant," she adds.

Other initiatives include annual energy fairs where vendors and internal groups are on hand to offer energy efficiency advice for both work and the home, and the addition of an Energy Wise site to Eastman's intranet. That site contains resources from Energy Star (a program established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) for employees to help improve energy efficiency both at work and at home.

To reinforce the message, new employees must take an online energy-training course — those who work in manufacturing must retake it every three years. New engineers must take a course on energy efficient design and pinch technology. In addition, 100 company managers so far have completed green sustainability training.

Without these changes, Eastman estimates it would have spent $25 million more in 2013 on energy when compared to the 2008 energy intensity baseline.

LEVERAGING NATURE
For Dow, Midland, Mich., novel use of nature is becoming an increasingly important part of meeting its sustainability goals.

One of the company's first experiences of this came three years ago when dioxane was found in some groundwater at its Terneuzen site in The Netherlands. Following an extensive study by a Dow remediation team, the site decided against the traditional pump-and-treat strategy and opted instead for "tree mediation" technology. It planted 240 trees, each in a large waterproof bag. A small diameter pipe acts as a "straw" for contaminated groundwater to travel to the roots. Acting like a solar pump, the tree takes the dioxane into its leaves where it is degraded through photo-oxidation.

"We are using similar technology at others plants in Ontario, here in Midland and Pittsburgh. It's a great technology because it's less invasive and able to treat a lot of remediation issues while they are in place rather than having to dig up soil and remove it for treatment. Effectively you are replacing the pumps and treatment systems such as scrubbers and distillation columns that have traditionally done this sort of job," explains Mark Weick, director of sustainability.

"Although the target at Terneuzen was dioxane, we are continuously working to find the best possible species to conduct phytoremediation. Our efforts to utilize existing species like poplar and willow trees have been successful. The suite of contaminants often varies from site to site and [we] will look to other indigenous species when we have unique issues that need to be addressed," he adds.

Dow is relying on phytoremediation at a former manufacturing site in Sarnia, Ontario. "We didn't want to have to run lots of infrastructure once we had left, so we have almost 1,000 trees — poplars and willows — doing a wonderful job. We continue to review data in terms of cost benefit analysis. We have set operations and maintenance procedures — the trees are evaluated on a regular basis (normally at least once per year) and replaced as needed."

The company's latest initiative is in Houston. Here, Dow is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy, Austin, Texas, on the use of trees to replace gray infrastructure such as scrubbers.

"No one considered reforestation an economically viable option to gray infrastructure before. Right now we are publishing the work in an academic journal and discussing the technology — benefits and questions — with the appropriate regulatory officials."

The challenge now for Dow is proving that the tree technology works in a structured way. "After all, we as site owners are accountable to the regulators to ensure that remediation is taking place to the appropriate standard. But such green infrastructure solutions are less proven than the traditional pipes and pumps," Weick notes.

MORE SUSTAINABLE PRODUCTION
Using renewable resources and advanced sustainable manufacturing processes is drawing more attention, too. For instance, Elevance Renewable Sciences Inc., Woodridge, Ill., is doing both to create new products and ingredients that deliver enhanced performance.

Called Renewicals, the products are created via an olefin methathesis catalytic process that breaks complex molecules into simple fragments and recombines them in novel ways, for example to create polymers or to exchange functional groups.

"Combined with patented processing technology, natural oil compounds from soy, canola and palm are synthesized with greater efficiency, offering superior performance at a lower cost and using less energy to produce than fossil-based products," says Andy Shafer, executive vice president, sales and market development. Any renewable oil is a potential feedstock; emerging ones such as from jatropha and algae already are being evaluated.

Product options so far include waxes, renewable alpha olefins, unsaturated acids and esters, as well as derivatives of the unsaturated acids and esters, such as diacids, epoxides, novel lubricant base stocks, surfactants and alcohols.

Elevance has a joint development agreement with Stepan Co., Northfield, Ill., which in late March launched the first product resulting from the cooperation — Steposol MET-10U, a novel surfactant derived from natural oils that is targeted to displace solvents.

Elevance itself in February announced expanded availability of Aria WTP (wide temperature performance) 40 base stock, which is made via proprietary technology from renewable feedstocks. "We expect to see Aria WTP 40 in gear and hydraulic fluid lubricant formulations within the year," notes Shafer.

Also in February, Elevance revealed that it is partnering with Versalis, the chemical subsidiary of Eni, Milan, Italy, to jointly develop and scale new metathesis technology to produce chemicals from vegetable oils.

"Today we use a metathetic catalyst based on ruthenium. Being able to use molybdenum and tungsten would allow us to deploy our technology at, for example, ethylene plants. There are plenty of these that need repurposing in Europe, for example," he explains.

MORE BENIGN BATTERY PRODUCTION
Meanwhile, Solvay Specialty Polymers, Bollate, Italy, has launched the Life+ Glee project, a highly focused sustainability program that aims to use water instead of organic solvents in manufacturing rechargeable lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries.

At the moment, the Li-ion slurry production process uses the solvent N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP), which is classified as a "substance of high concern" by the European Chemicals Agency; REACH regulations call for its progressive substitution by more sustainable chemicals. Unfortunately, replacing the toxic solvent with water would expose cathode active materials (CAMs) to corrosion.

So the project is seeking to develop waterproof yet Li-ion-permeable barrier technologies for the CAMs. "The novelty is not so much in the material we are using — a thin layer of metal/metal oxide — but the technology used to apply it. The protective layer has to be thick enough to protect from water yet thin enough to let the lithium ions work," says Francesco Triulzi, alternative energy open innovation manager. "In addition, the existing solvent recovery and re-purification phase is very costly and difficult because of the associated health and safety risks."

Solvay is nearing the end of the design phase for a pilot plant to produce the new materials at its research and innovation center in Bollate. The company is targeting March 30, 2015 as the date for the first materials to be sent for testing by battery makers, research organizations and electric car manufacturers.

The Life+ Glee project should result in a chemicals plant capable of producing several hundred kilograms of active battery cathode material per year under real industrial conditions.

"These are very small volumes in comparison to a commercial plant which would produce one hundred or one thousand times this amount. However, one key goal of the Life+ Glee project is the evaluation of the large-scale industrialization and commercialization potential of the technology," adds Triulzi.

Solvay is providing €1.7 million ($2.3 million) in funding, and the European Union is kicking in €593,000 ($818,000).


ottewell.jpgSeán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net.