Sustainability at All Stages: A New Tool for Assessing Novel Chemical Processes

Paige Johnson is a guest web-writer for EES. Paige is a member of the administrative staff at Caltech and is working on her MS in Science Communication. She has a background in evolutionary biology and dinosaur paleontology, and spends her free time trying to learning new things and enjoying the outdoors.

A novel method developed by energy researchers offers a way to assess sustainability of chemical processes at an early stage.

When developing novel chemical conversions, researchers have faced the challenge of assessing and predicting the broader environmental and economic impact of their work. Previously, no defined method was available for comparing criteria for overall sustainability of the new processes at an early state of development. Patel et al. have developed a multi-criteria method to assess future sustainability that can be applied at an early stage to help guide innovation.

Early stage process development is a time when there is flexibility to pursue sustainable options. In a recently published EES paper, Patel et al. propose that their method can help researchers analyze the processes they are developing within a broader economic, environmental, and social context. The method described in the paper is a data-based assessment tool for chemists to determine comparative sustainability of different processes. The criteria assessed are environmental constraint, environmental impact of raw materials, process costs and environmental impact, EHS index, and risk aspects. The paper describes the method for applying these criteria to chemical processes to create a score by which different processes can be compared.

Patel et al. apply their method to a catalytic process for the production of but-1,3-diene from ethanol that is currently being developed, and compare it to the dominant conventional method for production of but-1,3-diene from naphtha in a steam cracker. When they applied their method to these processes, the bioethanol-based process scored better than the petrochemical process overall, and the scores for the various criteria were in line with known data. While the input data may be less well defined for novel processes, that this method seems to be predictive and provides a comparison of different processes suggests that in most cases it can be useful for providing a broad assessment of sustainability factors, and can therefore aid early stage decision making.

It’s great that we’re at a point where there is encouragement for researchers to consider sustainability issues at all stages of development, and that people are thinking about ways to make it practical to do so. I think this new method will prove to be a concrete tool for researchers developing novel chemical conversion processes to start thinking about sustainability on the front end. Not only will it provide a relatively quick way to assess new processes in terms of sustainability, it can help guide research targets and goals, prompt consideration of potential alternatives, and encourage researchers to think about their results in a broader context.

Read about the details of this new approach in the full EES article here:

Sustainability assessment of novel chemical processes at early stage: application to biobased processes
Akshay D. Patel, Koen Meesters, Herman den Uil, Ed de Jong, Kornelis Blok and Martin K. Patel
Energy Environ. Sci., 2012, 5, 8430
DOI: 10.1039/c2ee21581k

By Paige Johnson

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