As science and technology have advanced with new innovations, we have become ever more dependent on the use of carbon materials and chemical processes that have negative impacts on human health and the environment. The future of a truly sustainable industry will live or die on its ability to take raw inputs that are naturally clean and use them to form the same end products that we’re already used to. That’s the basis of Green Chemistry.
Congress and other policymakers are focusing on legislation to promote “sustainable technologies”: Hybrid vehicles, subsidies for ethanol made from corn and sugar cane, renewable energy processes. These efforts are extremely important in society’s move to become truly sustainable. But for true sustainability, we must make sure we step back and look at the big picture. One can make computers, headphones as well as fuel-efficient vehicles and alternative energy devices using unsustainable technologies. While the end product can help achieve the solutions to sustainability, the process to generate the products, ironically, can actually contribute to the problem.
For instance, consider that most of the proposed renewables-focused legislation has been centered on retroactively trying to make “green” end products, rather than making them environmentally friendly from the start. This is, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently said, what is plaguing the push to be “comprehensively” greener. His op-ed goes on to quote DOE’s lofty goal to: “accelerate the normal progress of science and technology for energy research” and thereby “discover and commercialize the energy breakthroughs we need.”
What is critical is to understand that there are no “instantaneous” solutions. Society has become dependent on the herculean efforts of scientists designing molecules and materials from petroleum based feedstocks. It will be several decades for us to move to an industry based on truly green renewables. With the green tech craze in full swing, more and more Fortune 500 and blue-chip companies are looking to apply the principles of green chemistry to a $70 billion market that is no longer comfortable with the status quo — that oil-based specialty chemicals are the only possible ingredient in the creation of these everyday products.
The tenets of green chemistry tell us that there is a better way — that nature offers us our greatest alternative feedstocks. A sustainable future can not be based ethanol or biodiesel alone. It is our opinion that forestry products, including lignins, which are the glue that holds the wood together on a molecular level in the natural world offer unique opportunities. One company that has just been granted two patents on the clean extraction of lignin is called Vertichem, with which Warner-Babcock has just announced a new joint venture agreement this week. I look forward to a partnership with David Milroy, Chairman and Chief Executive, and his team as we devise new ways to support specialty chemicals, food sweeteners, and biofuels.
Consider that the forestry and sawmill industries (particularly in North America) create millions of acres worth of natural waste byproducts every year. This includes wood chips and agricultural waste that can be used as feedstock for stripping out the essential elements necessary to create green chemicals.
This is precisely where Congress can step in and provide grants, subsidies for forestry concerns, and tax incentives for companies who buy from green manufacturers that choose to replace their oil-based chemicals with lignin-based chemicals.
And it’s not as if private chemical companies — Dow, Archer Daniels Midland and others — don’t stand to gain as well. In fact, a recent industry analysis indicates that the inclusion of these waste streams into a company’s product mix can increase revenues by anywhere from 50-70 percent — a significant benefit to a growing industry.
Cellulosic and lignin materials have been around for a very long time. History is full of false starts using these materials as feedstocks. Past failures can not inhibit us. We believe that these past failures have been a result of an “either/or” mentality. Pitting one feedstock against another. New separations and purifications technologies in the bio-based world have emerged over the last decade to change the rules of what we can and can not do with forestry products.
It’s now time to revitalize an industry and be truly — comprehensively — green. Not as some sort of “us against them” warfare, but as a collaborative effort, working together to logically and systematically recreate the materials industry.
See original in the Huffington Post.