Chemicals play a critically important role in our everyday lives… but where do they all come from?
KTN Scoping Study identifies innovation opportunities for the chemical feedstocks of the future
Chemicals play a critically important role in our everyday lives – from paints to shampoos, mobile phones to pharmaceuticals, and cars to aeroplanes. But where do all these chemicals come from?
Well, let’s focus initially on organic chemicals – a broad class of substances containing carbon and its derivatives. Around 90% of these are currently derived from petrochemical feedstocks (i.e. petroleum or natural gas). These feedstocks are then fed into large chemical plants where the petroleum or gas is refined into basic platform molecules, which go on to be made into a range of more complex molecules that are utilised in almost every other sector in the economy. For example, ethylene can be transformed into polyethylene (for packaging); toluene turned into polyurethane (for use in mattresses); and phenol made into Paracetamol.
Inorganic chemicals (essentially substances that do not include carbon and its derivatives as their principal elements, such as metals and minerals) are often found as deposits in the ground and as such have to be mined and processed to produce a refined chemical product of sufficient purity for its purpose. Many of these inorganic chemicals are readily available but others are very rare. For example, Rare Earth Metals (used in magnets) and Beryllium (used as an alloy in aircrafts) are both designated Critical Raw Materials (CRMs) by the European Commission. These CRMs might be mined in only a few regions in the world and thus if you want to use them in your industrial process, your option of suppliers will be limited, increasing your risk of supply chain disruption.
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We need to develop new, sustainable, chemical feedstocks if we are going to meet the growing demand for chemicals into the future
So, taking into consideration that the global population is expected to increase from 7.2 billion to around 9.6 billion by 2050, along with the inevitable increase in demand on the world’s finite natural resources and the need to mitigate the impacts of climate change, it becomes pretty clear that we need to develop new, sustainable, chemical feedstocks if we are going to meet the growing demand for chemicals into the future.
With these considerations in mind, KTN recently undertook a Scoping Study to examine the key innovation challenges and opportunities associated with chemical feedstocks of the future. This Study also mapped out the innovation support network in the UK for companies that are innovating in this space.
Overall the Study found that there are a huge number of opportunities, through innovation, for us to develop feedstocks for chemicals of the future.
For example, a number of companies are already developing processes to capture carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) from industrial processes and utilise it as a feedstock for making polymers, fertilisers, low-carbon fuels and building materials.
Additionally we already have UK-based companies that are utilising advances in industrial biotechnology to produce biofuels and advanced materials from food waste and municipal solid waste.
As the hydrogen economy develops, companies are also looking at opportunities to utilise excess renewable energy to produce green hydrogen, which can then be transformed into other basic chemicals.
Finally, shale gas is also expected to play a key role in the future of the UK chemicals industry, providing a secure supply of indigenous feedstock, which can be utilised at the UK’s existing refineries or as part of new processes based on industrial biotechnology routes.