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Forget Going for the Gold; We're Going for Green! How U.S. EPA Programs Accelerate Innovation in the Chemical Enterprise

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At this year’s Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in Portland, OR, I had the opportunity to interview David Widawsky, Director of the Chemistry, Economics, and Sustainable Strategies Division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We discussed regulation, innovation, the future of green chemistry and much more.

Ashley: What is the EPA doing for green chemistry right now?

David: That’s a very open question, and we’re doing a lot of things. I think that recognition, as Jim Jones said during the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards (PGCCA) ceremony, is an important part of what we do to raise awareness. Our work to support the PGCCA occurs under our pollution prevention activities. Much of the work associated with the awards is voluntary; people aren't required to do it. It’s exciting that we have so many people that want to be involved with our green chemistry program.


Part of what we're doing in addition to raising awareness is trying to identify opportunities to educate the public, elected officials, public officials and industries in the opportunities around green chemistry. For example, we’ve done work to educate folks around safer coatings and materials: low VOC coatings, UV curable coatings, etc. Innovations in this area help reduce the amount of energy and volatizing chemicals that go into curing coating, and they help reduce the use of toxic chemicals in the processes. So, this is one example of sharing success stories in areas of activity in technology innovation, economic development, and research innovation that is exciting for us.

One of the things we’re trying to do more actively now is to identify pollution prevention /green chemistry as a solution for some of our regulatory challenges. One of the examples that I gave this morning to introduce the session we had on PGCCA winners was an example from Cytec Industries, a company that won an award in 2012 for replacing sulfuric acid in descaling processing pipes when processing alumina from bauxite. Huge amounts of spent sulfuric acid that were previously generated are no longer a liability for those bauxite processors. Permitting challenges, potential water quality issues, potential solid waste issues, waste management, etc. all might find solutions when the new process is used.

When we’re looking at ways to manage environmental challenges and meet regulatory requirements we’re trying to raise awareness and position green chemistry as a solution - a business solution - for environmental challenges. It’s not a mandate. When you meet regulatory needs, sometimes you serendipitously meet business needs. We're trying to do more with the Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, and the Department of Commerce in terms of supporting small to medium-sized manufacturers by promoting green chemistry as a solution.

We’re trying to work more at the sector level, such as the food processing and automotive industries. We’re looking across the industry sector to ask, what is their chemical foot print? What is their process transformation footprint, and how can green chemistry be a solution? That’s another exciting part of what we’re doing. We have many different irons in the fire to amplify and leverage green chemistry to help facilitate adoption in the marketplace. As public servants we don’t represent any company, but we try to identify opportunities for businesses in this space. We have some resources at our disposal, and we try to get involved and participate in important conversations with procurement officials, investors, and supply chain managers. Our goal is to help make green chemistry part of normalized supply chains. So that’s a long answer to your short question.

Ashley: How do you think rewarding green chemistry through programs like the PGCCA compares to regulating companies?

David: Regulation is a key way that we protect human health and the environment. I appreciate the need for regulation - and we do need it. The same people in our office who manage the PGCCA have a huge role in managing and implementing the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). They’re in that place that includes both regulation and EPA’s pollution prevention program, and there’s a complementarity there that we are trying to explore.

We’ve recognized some companies with green chemistry awards, and I had a couple of slides in my talk about the auto sector. I mentioned UV-curable coatings earlier. That’s basically developing coatings that can be cured with ultraviolet light instead of heat. When you cure things with heat - whether they’re primers or finished coatings or paint – you’re using a lot of energy. Many coating materials also contain volatile solvents, which may raise concerns. If you take those VOC’s out of the picture it can save companies money, and it can ameliorate or potentially obviate the need for a permit. People might still use coatings with VOCs if they capture the volatile organic carbons and don’t release them into the environment, but investing in that can take money and capital. Why do that when there are green chemistry options out there, that can save these companies money and that will help them to more easily meet regulatory requirements? These are green chemistry options, and that’s where I think the sweet spot is.

Ashley: So where do you think is the biggest challenge or bottleneck within a company is in becoming greener? Is it in R&D or is it more on the business side?

David: Without working this metaphor too hard, take the metaphor of a chain. There’s a lot of links in that chain. In some cases you may have strong links, but you also may have weak links. In some cases the R&D just isn't there. For example, in some cases people find it hard to get the same performance with non-fluorinated chemicals as they do with fluorinated chemicals - but folks are working hard on innovation in this space. On the other hand, some green chemistry processes have been around for thirty or forty years, but the price points don’t work for businesses or there’s an extremely complicated supply chain relationship. So it may be that changing one chemical or chemical transformation or materials transformation affects a whole lot of capital or capital expenditure.

One of the stories we heard about today was one of this year’s PGCCA winners. CB&I and Albemarle developed a solid catalyst system for making alkylate additives for gasoline (which helps gasoline meet environmental standards). However, in order for facilities to modify their plants to use this system there’s potentially a significant capital expenditure cost. It depends on the business and what they're doing. Sometimes, if it’s within a company, the decision to recapitalize their systems to be more efficient is possible depending on what payoff will be. If the price and the economics don't work they might not do it. The other problem is, even if you can recapitalize, how many months or years will it take to see the payback? In that case, the R&D might have become green before the business.cb&i.PNG

I think it sometimes has to do with the fact that it’s a business-to-business supply relationship. If a company is thinking adopting green chemistry the question may be: are they using green chemistry to produce the same product, or is there something about the product that changes? If something about the product changes, then they may have a lot of client relations that they have to pursue to get acceptance. They have to ensure the marketplace that they will deliver the same performance, timeliness and volume.

Supply chain and customer testing relationships can also be challenging. One of the examples that we've seen is amongst some recent PGCCA winners in the biofuels/renewable fuels spaces or that work on converting of things like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, or methane into fuels. In order to get those fuels accepted by the aerospace, car, and space industries there are a lot of tests and certifications that have to happen. That’s an expensive process. Trying to get the Department of Defense to test a new fuel in a hundred million dollar jet can be challenging. There are a lot of steps involved, and it’s an expensive proposition for small startup companies that can represent a pretty serious investment.

A fascinating example from the auto sector is one from Hyundai North America.  I heard a story two or three years ago at a meeting of the Suppliers Partnership for the Environment, an auto supply sector organization that the EPA helped launch.  Hyundai said they were looking for greener foam for their seats and headrests. Their seat supplier didn’t know how to produce it because they buy their foam from a foam manufacturer. There are multiple tiers to that supply chain. So Hyundai says they want this, and the seat supplier says I don’t know how to get that. The foam supplier eventually figured that they could change their business or lose out. That supply chain relationship took some complicated and delicate conversations, but eventually the seat manufacturer was able to source out much greener foam for their seats. That kind of industry involvement creates more awareness in the supply chains. Their willingness to go outside of what’s been done for decades and think about things a little differently was key to moving that forward.

We’re trying to figure out and learn more about supply-chain relationships. What are the sweet spots? What are the pressure points? What are the weak links in the chain? There may not be a federal assistance or recognition program that will fix every link, but the more we are aware of challenges the more effective we can be. If there’s something we can’t do, we can at least shine light on the issue and raise awareness about it. Otherwise, we work to identify opportunities and options to make a positive impact.

Among the many exciting things about being at this conference is all of the stories. Pretty much every company is experiencing some type of challenge, but each of these challenges presents an opportunity.

Ashley: If something like greener foams is a challenge for the automotive industry, why isn’t there more pre-competitive collaboration like what we have with the Pharmaceutical Roundtable?

David: In pharma, they’re all working in the precompetitive space so the idea of reducing the cost of say, oxidation, is a common good. No one is competing in that space. They’re all competing on their active ingredients for their drugs, which they’re obviously not sharing information about. But they know all these drugs need an oxidation reaction, and every company would be better off if they could do greener oxidations. It won’t throw off the competitive model.

I think the automotive and electronics industries are still trying to figure out where they can and can’t collaborate. Organizations that have credibility as supporting competition, supporting the American business model and have credibility in the environmental space could serve a really important role. We’re starting to see that in certain areas. A variety of non-governmental, non-profit organizations are trying to make those connections. There are some interesting stories out there, so we’re keeping our ears open.

Ashley: If we’re developing green chemistry solutions that are hard to implement here, do you think those solutions would be easier to implement in developing countries that don’t already have so much infrastructure?

David: Absolutely. There are some really exciting things going on in distributive models. One of the companies that was recognized last year with a PGCCA, Renmatix, is developing methods for using supercritical water for breaking down woody biomass. Jim Jones and I visited their pilot plant recently, and they’re looking at potentially building large plants near sources of woody biomass or potentially developing more modular systems. In these modular units, you have a potential feedstock that may be biobased, you have a system that can potentially be self-sustaining (like using lignin to power the plant), and you can make it small or large scale. There are some huge opportunities for companies using this kind of approach.

We heard today from Newlight, one of this year’s PGCCA winners, about converting methane to PHA and precursors for plastics. Their vision is to have production capabilities for this fitting on the back of a semi. These types of innovations provide opportunities for developing countries.

Hybrid Coating Technologies, a company that won an award in 2015 for their isocyanate-free resin coatings, may or may not, for example, manufacture in developing countries. But, as one of their partner companies said, when you go into an auto-supply or auto-repair shop you see large numbers of cautionary signs about the chemicals that they’re using.  Coatings may often contain a number of sensitizing compounds. Not using those chemicals means that people can avoid cumbersome and expensive personal protective equipment, sometimes called moon suits. Having lived in tropical countries myself, I can assure you that it could be very uncomfortable to wear a moon-suit to apply insulating foam, paints or coatings to vehicles in hot and humid locales, and the risk is that people won’t use them. The potential public health benefits of green chemistry in those countries could be massive, even larger, perhaps, than in the US.

Ashley: Where do you see green chemistry being in ten or fifteen years?

David: Hopefully everywhere! Sometimes I think we need to stop and look around. We’re surrounded by green chemistry opportunities.  Take textiles: the chairs we’re sitting on, the carpet under our feet, in our vehicles, our houses. Everywhere. The plastics that go into your phone cover, on our conference badges, adhesives. These are just a couple of areas where we’re seeing innovations in green chemistry.

Among the most exciting things is all of the fantastic basic chemistry research that’s happening because of green chemistry. There’s a lot of work going in to fine-tuning our chemistry knowledge which helps reduce the cost of production. Paul Chirik, one of the PGCCA winners this year, was talking about how when they started out it was really expensive to produce their earth-abundant metal catalysts. But through fine-tuning these activities they’ve been able to get those price-points down.

In five to ten years I’d like to see more of this everywhere. I’d like to see industry organizations on the supply side take a more active role in educating their members and member companies on the economic and business opportunities around green chemistry. We’re seeing this in pharmaceuticals. A huge amount of work has been done in pharma to reduce solvents, for example. The ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable has led a great example. We’ve seen a lot of interesting work in the auto supply sector through the Suppliers Partnership for the Environment organization that the EPA helped start. There’s also a lot going on in the food and electronics industries.

In five or ten years I’d like to see industry organizations showing companies that use materials or transform those materials, that their work can be an active opportunity to pull economically advantageous, business-oriented, wonderfully green innovations into the market. I think those industry organizations will be the strong voices. The EPA, the ACS GCI and other organizations can help initiate those conversations, but the industry organizations and the supply chains themselves will be the real pulls.

Photos by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency