Dr. Richard Lobo, Head Innovation and CQH at Tata Chemicals, in an interaction with Industry Outlook, shares his views on sustainability in the chemical industry. During the conversation, he throws light on the issues pertaining to CO2 emissions, circular economy and more.
According to reports by the United Nations, the current chemical production capacity is projected to double by 2030. The increasing production poses a potential risk to the already degrading climatic conditions. What are your thoughts on the role played by big corporates in influencing the industry’s progress towards creating a sustainable future?
The rising industrial activities alongside the burgeoning global population, create an impetus for the chemical industry
to escalate production that can match the needs of 8 billion people. India being the sixth-largest producer of chemicals, is also witnessing an urgency to double its production, in this context. Chemistry ingredients are an integral part starting with sustainable food security to delivering novel and high calibre solutions to protect our planet.
With growing production rate, the thrust of large corporations in the implementation of net zero, adoption of sustainability levers, and 12 principles of green chemistry, is instrumental in ensuring sustainability, not only in the value chain of production, but from cradle to grave. The push will enable all the players in the value stream to raise their standards. This will also enforce the small-scale raw material suppliers to commit to sustainability or traceability. On the other end, recyclers or the refined chemical sectors will be needed to give assurances of sustainable, eco-protecting practices.
The adoption of Integrated Reporting for annual reports will significantly encourage the corporations to articulate their view of the future from a sustainability commitment and point out the steps they are taking for themselves, the stakeholders, and the ecosystem at large.As a result, the chemical industry will rank amongst the most ethical industries for others to follow suit.
The chemical sector is the largest industrial energy consumer and the third largest industry subsector in terms of direct CO2 emissions. In what ways do you think players can reduce their carbon footprint?
The goal of achieving net zero is largely accomplished through four areas called abatement or sequestration approaches. The first area is about understanding the present state of carbon footprint and ways of reduction. Chemical industries are now implementing digital technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and digital twins. These initiatives are being combined with renewable energy projects to generate twin advantages — reducing energy use and carbon dioxide emissions.
The second is identifying alternative fields. The industry for a long time has been examining alternative energy sources like the hydrogen economy, but new developments are also occurring in other fields.
For instance, biochar, which is essentially made from agricultural waste, may provide the same amount of energy as coal. In addition, multiple companies are researching fossil fuel substitutes that have less carbon footprint.
Thirdly, a lot of institutes are interested in researching the possibility of capturing carbon to develop value-added chemistries. However, the difficulty lies in the ability to economically capture the carbon and convert it into the desired chemistries.
The fourth being natural sequestration requires capturing the carbon to sequester it. However, the process of performing sequestration depends upon geography. For example, in some countries, one can put the carbon into a crevice or mine and store it.
The chemical sector will need new technology and solutions to get to netzero. The main goal of this is to precisely analyse and quantify the carbon emissions and then develop ways to mitigate them.
Manufacturing is sometimes linked to unsustainable production and consumption patterns. As the concept of circular economy gains traction, how do you think it can be attained without hampering the quality of products?
Companies need to optimize the input resources in order to achieve a regenerative economy.
It is also crucial to keep track of emissions and energy leaks and find ways to significantly reduce them. Having a circular design right from the beginning of the product life will help improve durability, reparability, upgradability, and recycling. Hence, while a circular economy is an engine that keeps a company responsible, circular designs inspire us to be consistently responsive, and is critical to support the circular economy.
Today, we observe a general shift in the attitudes and preferences of both B2B and B2C clients. Customers and consumers are shifting towards companies that support social causes and promote environmental sustainability. They are particularly receptive to goods or procedures that start off as waste but can later provide value.
Being a very critical and integral part of everything for the chemical sector, the circular economy will help the player understand the impact of the footprint across the value chain.
The acceptance that the chemical industry must not adversely affect the environment for future generations has been the driving force behind the development of green chemistry. How do you see the chemical industry evolving in the near future?
The environmental friendliness of the chemical industry's processes, procedures, products, and footprints has been a persistent source of debate. The players are now more conscious and are working to attain environmental sustainability. Lying at the nucleus, specialty chemistry and agro chemistry, have made considerable advancements and adopted the principles of sustainability to generate more outcomes from fewer inputs.
Moving forward, green chemistry will play a pivotal role in attaining sustainability. The companies are now actively working to harness the potential of green chemistry and find ways to implement it in the existing chemical processes. Companies that are facilitating the chemical sector delivery process will also have to implement green chemistry into their operations. In the coming years, the world will see growing convictions about how green chemistry has transformed the chemical industry.
At Tata Chemicals, we are examining our internal procedures to determine how to convert the production processes to green chemistry, and have already begun on that path. We are also considering ongoing research and development initiatives. In the near future, we will exclusively use green chemistry as the foundation for the processes and products that we develop.
For instance, Tata Chemicals now extracts silica from rice husk ash, which is agricultural waste. As silica can be produced from rice husk ash at temperatures between 135 and 240 degrees Celsius, this has also allowed us to use less energy from employing quartz, which formerly required temperatures between 1200 and 1400 degrees Celsius.
Moving forward, Tata Chemicals will move in tandem with the chemical sector, transiting towards green chemistry, sustainable and environment-friendly business approaches.