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The crucial role of chemistry in achieving net-zero: transforming industries and reducing emissions

Rich Woolley, Head of Energy and Climate Change | Chemical Industries Association

6 min read Partner content

The chemical industry is fundamental to net-zero. We provide the advanced materials used in the technologies that society is looking to deploy to reach our climate targets. Everything from wind turbine blades to insulation to lightweight materials all rely on chemical innovation and engineering. Wherever you look in the economy, chemical products are helping to decarbonise the way we live.

Here in the UK, the Government is aiming to establish at least four low carbon industrial clusters by 2030 and at least one net-zero cluster by 2040.  Achieving this target would make a significant dent in the 19% of UK emissions that are accounted for by business, and success is dependent on chemistry1. Hydrogen, as an energy vector for heat and power, will play a major role in the decarbonisation of the type of high heat manufacturing found in the UK’s industrial clusters. But hydrogen is not typically found in large quantities in nature, so it must be manufactured, and the chemical sector is finding innovative ways to do this using a variety of materials (including waste!) and processes, like auto thermal reforming, electrolysis, fermentation, pressurised water absorption and pyrolysis.

The two winners of the UK's first round of funding to support cluster decarbonisation were the East Coast Cluster, comprising Teesside and Humber, and the HyNet cluster, which covers the Merseyside area in the North West. In each case, the cluster's net-zero roadmap relies on hydrogen and carbon capture, both enabled by chemistry. Within the East Coast Cluster, H2H Saltend – a 600MW blue hydrogen production plant with over a 95% carbon capture rate  – will supply low-carbon hydrogen to energy-intensive firms in the Humber cluster from 2027. The technology that will be used to turn natural gas into hydrogen, and to capture the resulting emissions, will be provided by chemical company Johnson Matthey, with the amount of carbon dioxide captured equivalent to taking 500,000 cars off the road annually. Johnson Matthey's technology will also be deployed at the 1.2GW H2Teesside project, set to kick-start operations in 2028, and in the HyNet cluster targeting operation in 2027.

But the chemical sector isn't just providing the fuel to decarbonise; it's also taking the emissions of others and putting those to good use. Flue2Chem is a collaborative programme designed to transform the sustainability of the UK's consumer products industry. Currently, fossil feedstocks extracted from coal, oil and gas, are used to make a range of consumer goods from electronics to cleaning products, which globally put around 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere every year. Flue2Chem, which represents a consortium of chemical sector players, will work to convert industrial waste gases from heavy industry into more sustainable chemicals for consumer products, a move which is essential in helping the UK reach net-zero by 2050. The project is targeting a reduction in UK emissions of 15-20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Another great example of the sector making use of otherwise polluting industrial emissions comes from Coca-Cola, who are working with Swansea University to make bottle tops from carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere. The process would displace the use of fossil fuel feedstock that would otherwise be used to make the tops.

As well as emissions, we are also taking other people's waste and turning it back into valuable products. Mura Technology is preparing to open its doors to what it calls the world's first commercial-scale HydroPRS advanced plastic recycling site in Teesside. Mura says its HydroPRS technology can efficiently recycle "unrecyclable" postconsumer flexible, rigid and multilayered plastics into high-quality, recycled liquid hydrocarbons that can replace the use of virgin fossil-based oils in the manufacture of new plastic. The Teesside site has the capacity to produce 20,000 metric tons annually of recycled-content hydrocarbon feedstocks.

At the Port of Sunderland, 30 odd miles away, Wastefront has obtained an environmental permit for its flagship tyre recycling site. It is expected to produce recovered carbon black (rCB) from around 20% of the UK's annual supply of end-of-life tyres. Utilising commercial technologies, Wastefront will convert discarded tyres into other resources, including biofuels and rCB, which can be used in various industries, including alternative fuel and tyre manufacturing. The project aims to address the environmental issues posed by end-of-life tyres, which generate an estimated 31 million metric tonnes of waste and emissions annually. Wastefront expects to achieve full operational status by 2026.

As well as making established chemicals in new ways, chemists are also seeking out new, more sustainable materials. Notpla is a London-based packaging startup founded in 2014, best known for its seaweed-based sachets that have been trialled by Lucozade and Just Eat, and for which it was awarded Prince William's Earthshot prize. Whilst consumer products firm Elemis has teamed up with Xampla, to transform plant waste from product ingredients into bio-based films, to replace the flexible plastics currently used to package samples.

In addition to helping to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of manufacturing industries, the chemical sector has a critical role to play in mitigating emissions from the transport sector, by far the largest source of emissions in the UK economy. New energy sources, such as biofuels, e-fuels, hydrogen, ammonia and batteries, are all simply ways of storing energy in chemical form. When it comes to batteries, the refining of rare earth minerals is a chemical process, and a number of players are working to get lithium production up and running here in the UK. Green Lithium and Tees Valley Lithium are both targeting sustainable lithium manufacturing in the North East, whilst Altilium metals is hoping to establish a greener way of recovering materials from end-of-life batteries and recirculating them into the battery supply chain. 

When it comes to e-fuels, the synthetic fuel startup, Zero, has opened a technology centre in Oxfordshire where it plans to produce fossil fuel free fuel before the end of this year. Whilst very nearby, an Oxford University spin-off, OXCCU, has partnered with United Airlines to make jet fuel from carbon dioxide. They are currently building a demonstrator plant at Oxford Airport and hope for commercial production by 2030. Meanwhile, in the North East, Circular Fuels Ltd has received planning permission for a ground-breaking low-carbon e-fuels plant that will be able to produce 50,000 tonnes of safe, cost-effective, and clean burning fuel per year from 220,000 tonnes of non-recyclable household and industry waste. 

We face the formidable challenge of getting to net-zero by 2050. The examples above show steps in the right direction, but much more remains to be done. What is certain is that whatever obstacles emerge along the way, chemistry and the chemical industry will set to work to find a solution and to seize the opportunities that the transition presents.

1. DESNZ - 2022 UK greenhouse gas emissions, provisional figures

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