Sustainability Is Where You Find It
Dec21

Sustainability Is Where You Find It

At Pacifichem, the conference is set up so that you tend to want to just drift around and stick your head into one meeting room for a talk and them skip out to another session for a different talk. Doing that one afternoon, I came across a talk by Rogers E. Harry-O'kuru of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, in Peoria, Ill., who was speaking about novel synthetic products that could be made from milkweed. Milkweed, which literally is a weed in agricultural areas, can ideally be cultivated on unused farmland, Harry-O'kuru said. The plant produces a fibrous "seed floss," which equips the seeds for wind dispersal, that can be used as a hypoallergenic fill material for pillows and jackets, he noted. The seeds also contain a highly unsaturated oil that can be converted to polyoxiranes and polyhydroxy triglycerides to use as base materials in creams and lotions or as lubricants, he said. What struck me about Harry-O'kuru's lecture is the ingenuity of people to turn whatever they have at hand into useful products that potentially cost little and can help improve the environment. These talks have applications globally, especially in developing countries. I then noticed a handful of other talks strung together by the common theme of sustainability: Kyoung S. Ro of USDA's research center in Florence, S.C., gave an interesting talk on gasification of blended animal manures to produce synthesis gas and activated carbon. Pig and chicken poop mixed with sawdust and wood chips can be converted to syngas, which can be burned to generate electricity or further upgraded to dimethyl ether that can be used as a diesel fuel substitute. The whole process can be carried out in a transportable reactor, with the char left behind purified and used as activated carbon filter material in the reactor. Guillermo Toriz of the University of Guadalajara, in Mexico, gave a talk on the diversified uses of agave, the plant that is used to make tequila. The waxing and waning popularity of tequila has led to a severe overproduction of agave in Mexico, Toriz said, which has obliterated the price for farmers from about $2.00 per kilogram to about 5 cents per kilogram, making it uneconomical to harvest. Toriz described some new uses for agave that could help farmers: Enzymatic production of high-fructose-content agave syrups, using fructans (fiberlike polysaccharides) in agave as food additives and prebiotics that help promote growth of beneficial bacteria in the human gut, and using esterified fructans to make microspheres to encapsulate and deliver drugs to the colon. Janusz Kozinski of the University of Saskatchewan described the use of supercritical water as a medium for...

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Dressed Up With No Place To Go
Dec20

Dressed Up With No Place To Go

Here at Pacifichem, the Alternate Energy Technology topical area featured a number of sessions on improving coal technologies to curb carbon dioxide emissions and using biomass as a source of energy. I have attended quite a few conferences, workshops, and symposia during the past decade that focused on these topics. The message is always the same: We need to develop alternative technologies to generate electricity and transportation fuels as our supply of petroleum and other fossil fuels runs out, and it would be nice to curb carbon dioxide emissions to save the planet at the same time. Based on current trends in global energy consumption, even with significant incremental technology changes--that is, business as usual--atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will still more than double by 2100 and impact global temperatures. Exactly how the planet will react is uncertain, but the prospects aren't good. Scientists and engineers participating in these gatherings acknowledge that there is no one solution to this future-of-energy scenario, and of the emerging technologies such as solar, wind, electric vehicles, and more, none are yet concrete nor are they affordable.  The message is: We know what has to be done, we have a pretty good idea how to do it, but no one wants to pay for it.  It's getting to be a tiresome refrain. The U.S. budget provides more than $1 billion annually for energy research. More than $400 million of that is dedicated to coal, which is an indicator of the reality of energy consumption--the U.S. has lots of coal and natural gas, an estimated 250 years or more supply, and we are going to use it up first and set a regulatory policy in order to do it. Coal-rich countries such as China are in the same policy boat. It is not a bad policy, because coal is cheaper for now. It just means alternative energy technologies are not going to be adopted very quickly, and we are unlikely to do much about the cost of environmental control quickly, because no one wants to pay for it, hence the reason global agreements on carbon capture and sequestration to curb carbon dioxide emissions are languishing. We have to continue research in all areas to be able to move when the time comes, however. That is the essence of being sustainable. But that does nothing to satisfy the need for instant gratification that today's global society has come to expect--that one can have what they want when they want it from a blue electronic screen or by sliding a card. So it is with alternative energy technologies. It’s really an ideal that is dressed up with no place...

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Sustainability And Growth
Aug02

Sustainability And Growth

This week’s cover story on sustainability focuses on a green supply chain—manufacturers who are working to ensure that the ingredients that go into their products are produced in a sustainable fashion by workers who are treated fairly. Senior Editor Melody Voith talked to four niche consumer-brand companies about their relationships with raw material suppliers and profiled their efforts to work with those suppliers to ensure that the raw materials supported the companies’ green claims. Even for relatively small companies catering to high-end markets, Voith’s reporting suggests, ensuring a green provenance for raw materials is a challenge. Soap manufacturer Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, for example, is committed to using only tropical oils that are certified to be organic and made under fair-trade practices. “Finding palm, olive, and coconut oils that meet Bronner’s high standards,” Voith writes, “has taken Gero Leson, the company’s chief operating officer, to the ends of the Earth.” The kind of commitment practiced by Dr. Bronner’s simply isn’t possible for all companies, Voith notes. Unilever, for example, which makes Dove soap, is the world’s largest buyer of palm oil. Unilever has committed to buy all of its palm oil from certified sustainable sources by 2015, Voith writes. But the company acknowledges that “there isn’t yet sufficient volume coming through segregated supply chains where buyers can have confidence that the refined oil which they are buying comes from a plantation, mill, and refinery that have been certified sustainable.” It’s easy to dismiss the sustainability efforts of niche players like Dr. Bronner’s and the other companies Voith discusses in her story. They’re small and they cater to upscale customers willing to pay a premium to demonstrate their green sensibility. But larger companies are paying attention to consumers’ increasing concern about the environment and their impact on it. Walmart, for example, has 11 “Standards for Suppliers” posted on its corporate page. The “Environment” standard states: “Suppliers must ensure every manufacturing facility complies with national and local environmental laws, including all laws related to air emissions, water discharges, toxic substances and hazardous waste disposal. Suppliers must validate that all input materials and components were obtained from permissible harvests consistent with international treaties and protocols in addition to local laws and regulations.” As Voith points out, the ingredient prospecting carried out by the companies she interviewed “may smooth the way for mass-market brands to improve the sustainability of their raw materials.” This issue also contains many letters we received in response to my editorial “Addicted to Growth” (C&EN, June 28, page 3). As you can see, about an equal number of writers agreed and disagreed with the editorial. The editorial was also...

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