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Oil Companies Go Full Into Petrochemicals – And Green Chemistry Needs Help To Be Competitive
A Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California. AP Photo / Paul Sakuma Global oil consumption fell by about 9% in 2020 as the pandemic reduced business and leisure travel, factory production and freight transportation. This sharp drop accelerated the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energies. US government forecasts show that the use of petroleum for transportation, industry, construction, heating and electricity is on the decline and will continue to decline in the years to come. This trend has huge implications for the oil industry: As the International Energy Agency observed in 2020, “No oil and gas company will be immune to clean energy transitions.” Today, about 80% of every barrel of refined oil in the United States is used to make gasoline, distillate (diesel), and jet fuel, with the remainder going to petrochemicals. EIA Many of these companies are trying to offset their losses by increasing the production of petrochemicals derived from petroleum and natural gas. Today, about 80% of every barrel of oil is used to make gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, with the rest going to petrochemicals. As the demand for petroleum fuels gradually decreases, the amount of petroleum used for that “other” share will increase. This makes sense as a business strategy, but here’s the problem: Researchers are working to develop more sustainable alternatives to petrochemicals, including bio-based plastics and specialty chemicals. However, petrochemicals can be made at a fraction of the cost. As a biochemist working to develop environmentally friendly versions of valuable chemicals, I fear that without adequate support, pioneering green chemistry research will find it difficult to compete with fossil-based products. This video from Austrian oil and gas company OMV shows how petrochemicals are used as the basis for products ranging from pharmaceuticals to bicycle helmets. Pivotal to Petrochemicals Petrochemicals are used in millions of products, from plastics, detergents, shampoos and makeup to industrial solvents, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and carpets. Over the next 20 years, the oil company BP predicts that this market will grow by 16% to 20%. Oil companies are launching to increase petrochemical production. In the Saudi city of Yanbu, for example, two state-owned companies, Saudi Aramco and Sabic, are planning a new complex that will produce 9 million metric tons of petrochemicals each year, turning Arab light crude oil into lubricants, solvents and other products. . These changes are happening across the global industry. Several Chinese companies are building factories that will convert around 40% of their oil into chemicals such as p-xylene, a building block of industrial chemicals. Exxon-Mobil began to develop research and development in the field of petrochemicals as early as 2014. The International Energy Agency predicts that petrochemicals will account for a third of the growth in world oil demand until 2030 and half of the growth in demand until 2050. The promise of green chemistry At the same time, in the United States and other industrialized countries, health, environment and safety concerns are driving research sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based chemicals. The drilling of oil and natural gas, the use of petrochemicals and the combustion of fossil fuels have significant impacts on the environment and human health. The high consumption of oil also raises national security concerns. The Department of Energy has conducted basic research on bioproducts through its national laboratories and has funded university bioenergy research centers. These labs develop sustainable, plant-based household biofuels and bioproducts, including petrochemical alternatives, through a process called “metabolic engineering”. Researchers like me use enzymes to turn leafy wastes from crops and other sources into sugars that can be eaten by microorganisms – typically bacteria and fungi like yeast. These microorganisms then turn the sugars into molecules, much like yeast turns sugar into ethanol, fermenting it into beer. When creating bioproducts, instead of creating ethanol, sugar is transformed into other molecules. We can design these metabolic pathways to create solvents; components in widely used polymers such as nylon; perfumes; and many other products. My lab is exploring ways to design enzymes – catalysts produced by living cells that cause or speed up biochemical reactions. We want to produce enzymes that can be introduced into modified bacteria, in order to produce structurally complex natural products. The overall goal is to bring carbon and oxygen together in predictable ways, similar to the chemical structures created by petroleum-based chemistry. But the green approach uses natural substances instead of oil or natural gas as the building blocks. It is not a new concept. Enzymes in bacteria are used to make an important antibiotic, erythromycin, which was first discovered in 1952. All of this takes place in a biorefinery – a facility that takes natural inputs like algae, waste. crops or specially grown energy crops like switchgrass and converts them into commercially valuable substances, as petroleum refineries do with petroleum. After fermenting sugars with modified microorganisms, a biorefinery separates and purifies microbial cells to produce a range of bio-based products including food additives, animal feed, perfumes, chemicals and plastics. In response to the global plastic pollution crisis, one of the research priorities is “upcycling polymers”. Using bio-based raw materials can turn single-use water bottles into more recyclable materials than petroleum-based versions because they are easier to heat and remould. Thousands of pounds of marine debris, much of it plastic, is piling up on Midway Atoll in the northern Pacific Ocean. Holly Richards, USFWS Closing the Cost Gap To replace polluting products and practices, sustainable alternatives must be cost competitive. For example, many plastics currently end up in landfills because they are cheaper to manufacture than to recycle. High costs also slow progress towards a bioeconomy. Today, research, development and manufacturing are more expensive for bioproducts than for established petrochemical versions. Governments can use laws and regulations to drive change. In 2018, the European Union set an ambitious goal of sourcing 30% of all plastics from renewable sources by 2030. In addition to reducing plastic pollution, this step will save money. energy: the production of petroleum-based plastics ranks third in energy consumption in the world, after energy production and transport. Promoting bio-based products is consistent with President Biden’s whole-of-government approach to climate change. Investments in bioproduction could also help create modern manufacturing jobs in rural areas, a goal of Biden’s U.S. employment plan. But investments by oil companies in the design of new chemicals are increasing, and the gap between the cost of petroleum-based products and those produced using emerging green technologies continues to widen. More efficient technologies could eventually flood existing petrochemical markets, further lowering the cost of petrochemicals and making competition even more difficult. In my opinion, the growing climate crisis and growing plastic pollution make it urgent to wean the global economy off oil. I believe that finding alternatives to petroleum-based chemicals in many of the products we use on a daily basis can help the world achieve this goal. [You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter.]This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Constance B. Bailey, University of Tennessee. Read more: Scientists found oil from Deepwater Horizon eruption in fish livers and on the ocean floor Scientists are developing greener plastics – biggest challenge is moving them from the lab to the Constance B market. Bailey does not work for, consult with, own shares in or receive funding from any business or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond their academic appointment.