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EU Shares Roadmap to Harnessing Digital Technologies

May 16, 2023
The European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) and management consulting firm Arthur D Little share how the chemical industry can adopt digital technologies to create a circular and more sustainable economy.

Technologies such as the industrial internet of things (IIoT), automation and blockchain provide the digitalization backbone to transform the European Union (EU) chemical sector into a circular, more sustainable economy.

So says the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) and management consulting firm Arthur D. Little in a 52-page report called “Digital Technologies for Sustainability in the European Chemical Industry.”

“Digitalization in the chemical industry is not new with multiple players already applying digital technologies in their fields,” says Daniel Witthaut, Cefic’s executive director for innovation. “However, enormous opportunities exist for the industry to reach its sustainability goals faster through the application of the latest digital technologies — a journey that is just beginning for most players.”

The report’s authors outline how the chemical sector currently uses technologies and ways to scale their use to enable more sustainable processes and products.

One example is Eastman Chemical Co.’s use of blockchain technology to trace certified recycled content across its value chain. The blockchain-based platform provides visibility into the specialty plastics produced with the company’s certified molecular recycling technologies.

The report also highlights Evonik Industries’ IIoT platform, which the company uses to rapidly develop applications and securely scale them from the edge to the cloud. The platform also allows the company to extend the applications across the enterprise, so multiple sites can benefit from them and easily tailor the tools to meet their specific needs. One of the company’s first developments using the platform was a digital plant-inspection checklist that it combined with process information systems and current plant data to help identify trends and deviations faster.

Another example is BASF’s use of its supercomputer by R&D staff to conduct complex simulations of processes and materials once deemed impossible. “For instance, intricate modeling of molecular processes and materials with specific properties and functionalities that help increase their sustainability performance can now be performed within a few minutes, while covering a range of simulation parameters without the need for crude approximations,” the report states. The company also is applying supercomputing to research more efficient and sustainable industrial catalysts (Figure 1).

Based on interviews with senior digital and sustainability experts within and beyond the EU chemical industry and covering more than 50 companies, the authors identified five priority areas they believe digital technologies could have the largest impact. These are process design and production for climate and circularity objectives; sustainability assessment; enabling materials and chemicals circularity through tracking and tracing; sustainable product design; and safe and efficient logistics and distribution.

The report then expands on the need for industry to address the challenges restricting the adoption of digital transformation. These include data availability, interoperability, standardization and cybersecurity. Also cited is the reluctance among companies to share data, financial costs, organizational issues, and a need for more digital skills in the workforce.

Addressing these bottlenecks calls for greater collaboration between EU institutions and the chemical industry, the report notes, such as collectively investigating scalable solutions for broader and more intensive implementation toward a sustainable future. There is also a need to establish common data and technology standards, including data sharing standards.

The report also urges industry to explore new business models, target investment into digital technologies to achieve circularity and sustainability targets, and train and attract talents with advanced digital skills. Here, the authors advise collaboration with universities to facilitate curricula and educational content development that links digitalization and sustainability aspects.

Finally, the authors urge the chemical industry to be more active in the development of EU digital policies and regulations.

The report’s final recommendations concern EU institutions — most notably, aligning the regulatory framework. This, it says, should allow for applying digital technologies and speeding up existing processes for deploying digital technologies that effectively contribute to sustainability objectives, including through new business models.

“The success of digital solutions that are in their development phase (e.g., AI applications) strongly depends on an innovation-friendly policy and regulatory framework,” the report concludes.

About the Author

Seán Ottewell | Editor-at-Large

Seán Crevan Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor-at-Large. Seán earned his bachelor's of science degree in biochemistry at the University of Warwick and his master's in radiation biochemistry at the University of London. He served as Science Officer with the UK Department of Environment’s Chernobyl Monitoring Unit’s Food Science Radiation Unit, London. His editorial background includes assistant editor, news editor and then editor of The Chemical Engineer, the Institution of Chemical Engineers’ twice monthly technical journal. Prior to joining Chemical Processing in 2012 he was editor of European Chemical Engineer, European Process Engineer, International Power Engineer, and European Laboratory Scientist, with Setform Limited, London.

He is based in East Mayo, Republic of Ireland, where he and his wife Suzi (a maths, biology and chemistry teacher) host guests from all over the world at their holiday cottage in East Mayo

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