Inside the strange, circular world of advanced materials

ShutterstockStellar Gems

The following article is an excerpt from our State of Green Business (SOGB) 2017 report. Published by GreenBiz in partnership with Trucost, it provides a global view of the year's trends in sustainable business. The report is free to download here.

There is a growing need for new and innovative materials that meet the requirements of a low-carbon and circular economy. And while innovations in textiles, construction, packaging and other materials-intensive sectors have been more or less continuous over the years, the challenges of sustainability — being able to provide for a growing global middle class without busting the planetary budget — have accelerated the pace of change.

The past few years have seen a rapid growth of materials innovations, from plant-based plastics to green chemistry breakthroughs to materials recovered from waste, including plastics bobbing in the ocean. Together, these innovations represent a dramatic rethinking of how things are made and a shifting of supply chains toward innovators both large and small.

The need for new materials solutions stems in part from the growing environmental challenges that come from both their manufacture and disposal. Consider plastic. The difficulty of recycling many types of plastics, notably rigid and flexible plastic packaging items comprising various polymer types, is creating significant environmental challenges — and costs. Estimates of the negative externalities of plastic packaging alone reach up to $40 billion per year, exceeding the actual profits that stem from plastic packaging in the first place, according to a 2016 report, "The New Plastics Economy," by the World Economic Forum, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company.

The push for plant-based plastics is more than a quarter-century old, beginning in the late 1980s, when ag giant Cargill launched a research project focused on finding ways to use carbohydrates as a base for plastics. In 2003, that effort spawned NatureWorks, which converts cornstarch to polylactic acid (PLA), the first biopolymer to compete head-on with petrochemical plastics and fibers.

In 2009, the beverage industry weighed in with PlantBottle, refreshing the age-old "cola wars," as Coke and Pepsi vied to outdo each other with more bottles of higher-percentage plastic from plants, primarily sugar cane. By mid-2015, the Coca-Cola Company said it had distributed more than 35 billion PlantBottle packages in more than 40 countries, a number the company said will exceed 43 billion by 2020.

Such solutions aren’t perfect — for example, biobased plastics often ignore the health and safety profile of biobased materials across their lifecycle — but they have attractive climate benefit: Manufacturing PLA, for example, produces 60 percent fewer greenhouse gases than the petrochemical plastics such as PET and polystyrene.

Plastics are just the beginning. Another concrete example is, well, cement. That industry alone is responsible for more global greenhouse emissions than Japan or Canada, mostly due to the huge amount of energy it takes to heat limestone, cement’s key ingredient, and the subsequent chemical process it undergoes. The industry has been slow to change, despite that even a modest price on carbon could have devastating effects on the industry.

New technologies and approaches are being developed to cut down on cement’s environmental downsides, such as using industrial byproducts to reduce overall cement usage, or producing self-healing concretes that reduce the need for new cement, or creating entirely new materials. No perfect solution yet exists, but the opportunity is enormous: The global market for concrete was nearly $400 billion, according to Statista. Even a small chunk of that could provide the foundation for a sizeable niche market.

Some of the world’s largest chemical companies are seeing paydirt in such materials innovations.

Consider Eastman Chemical. In 2011, it committed to ensuring that at least two-thirds of its new product revenue was tied to "sustainably advantaged" materials. Last year, the company reported that it was ahead of its goal, having brought to market such innovations as Tritan copolyester, a polymer that contains no bisphenol A, commonly used in a variety of consumer products and packaging but of concern to health and environmental advocates. Tritan can be for used for products traditionally made out of hard plastics such as small household appliances. Two well-known household brands, Hamilton Beach and Rubbermaid, have put it to use.

Another Eastman innovation is Tenite cellulosics, a series of plastics made with 40 percent renewable wood pulp, used, among other places, by electric guitar maker RKS, a company recognized for its dedication to using alternatives to endangered Indian ebony and Brazilian rosewood.

The success of such innovations is music to the ears of other chemical makers, particularly in light of the growing need for infrastructure investments in the United States and elsewhere in a climate-constrained world.

BASF and Dow, for example, see massive markets taking shape for advanced materials. Both are setting up research and development labs and multisectoral partnerships around the world, such as BASF’s Network for Advanced Materials Open Research, a collaboration with Asia Pacific’s leading universities and institutes, and the North American Center for Research on Advanced Materials, a partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts.

In late 2016, Dow announced an innovation center at its Midland, Michigan, headquarters, focusing on advancing materials for home and personal care products, energy-saving building technologies, critical infrastructure and lighter-weight automobiles. It joins with similar Dow innovation centers, such as a five-building complex outside Houston.

Some materials innovations come from good, old-fashioned recycling, early manifestations of the emerging circular economy, where waste and other unneeded materials become feedstocks for new products. General Motors, for example, said that reusing and recycling materials adds $1 billion in annual revenue. Meanwhile, Ford is evaluating the feasibility of turning retired dollar bills into plastic car parts — after all, that’s where the money is. (Ford is also experimenting with other unconventional material feedstocks, such as a plastic using the dense fibrous properties of agave leaves, a waste product produced at tequila distilleries. Mustang Margarita, anyone?)

And then there’s carpet manufacturer Interface, which last year pledged to "transform dispersed materials into products and goodness" as part of a new set of company goals dubbed "Climate Take Back." The company has set up a program called Net-Works, where residents in coastal villages harvest discarded fishing nets, an ecological blight that destroys coral reefs and mangrove swamps, to create raw materials for Interface’s supply chain. The program, currently operating in the Philippines and Cameroon, has harvested nearly 100 tons of discarded nets to turn back into nylon fiber for carpeting.

Together, such efforts can be viewed as the early stages of a feedstock shift, where petroleum is extracted primarily for its valuable hydrocarbons and used for building, not burning, thus avoiding greenhouse gas emissions from burning while still finding uses for the tens of trillions of dollars of oil still in the ground but already on companies’ books — so-called "unburnable carbon."

This is no pipe dream: Already, nearly one in five barrels of oil is used for advanced materials, specialty chemicals and other non-fuel purposes, and increasingly is being used to create new materials that substitute for those with higher greenhouse gas emissions, such as steel, aluminum and concrete.

There is a vast potential business opportunity in growing the percentage of oil used for such purposes. For example, thanks to materials such as carbon fiber-reinforced plastics, BMW’s i3 electric vehicle uses no structural steel in its passenger module and has increased strength and dramatically reduced weight, reducing the size of the battery needed to move the car the same distance. It won’t be that long before most vehicles are made this way.

Can the oil and gas industry become the climate’s savior? It may seem farfetched, but when it comes to advanced materials, everything is on the table.

Players to watch

Ellen MacArthur Foundation — works to accelerate the circular economy, including groundbreaking research on "the new plastics economy."

GrafTech International — one of the world’s largest manufacturers of natural and synthetic graphite and carbon-based products.

Newlight Technologies — its carbon capture technology combines air with methane-based greenhouse gas emissions to produce a plastic material called AirCarbon.

Novomer — a chemistry company whose technology enables carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to be used as raw materials in the production of polymers and chemicals.

Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry — works to develop nontoxic, environmentally benign and sustainable technologies, products and processes.