May 23, 2023 • 4 min read

Decarbonization: understanding the challenges facing the chemicals industry

In this article

How can the chemicals industry reach net zero by 2050 while still delivering everything the modern world needs, and wants?

“Today’s chemicals industry is built on cheap and abundant fossil hydrocarbon feedstocks and energy,” says Chris Mole, Global Sector Lead for Chemicals and Fuels. “But the industry needs to play a role in addressing climate change, with new chemistry-based solutions for a sustainable world. And to make this change, the industry need world-class engineering solutions.

“Having spent over 30 years working in the chemicals and fuels sector, for both licensors and project delivery companies, it’s evident that the pace of change in the chemicals industry is faster than ever before,” he says. “Producers are embracing the challenges of creating a net-zero future.”

But where do you start in an industry that, according to the International Energy Agency, is the largest industrial consumer of both oil and gas and the third industry subsector in terms of direct CO2 emissions?

Embracing known and novel technologies

The path to net zero in the chemicals and related industries will rely on a mix of existing and new technologies.

“Whatever decarbonization challenge our customers face, we don’t believe you should have to separate your chemical engineer from your sustainability engineer – we’re one and the same,” says Mole.

“We’ve been working with our customers to develop solutions across three main areas of focus – alternative feedstocks, process decarbonization, and resource stewardship. These we think of as the ‘What’. But we also need the ‘How’. And this is digital transformation. Including this in early conversations makes sure the ‘What’ is as effective as possible,” he adds.

Future-proofing the chemicals industry.

Future-proofing the chemicals industry

The role of alternative feedstocks

“In the first instance, we need to address those chemicals currently producing large carbon emissions during production. For example, traditional routes to hydrogen are starting to be managed with carbon capture – known as blue hydrogen - or by changing to renewable power electrolysis, to produce green hydrogen. We’re also actively working with customers to convert to bio-based feedstocks where that makes sense,” says Mole.

A traditional example of bio-based feedstocks is converting sugars to make alcohols or acids and then advancing them to polymers.

“Current thinking has the industry developing renewable naphtha from the same refinery processes that manufacture renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuels or developing bio-oil from the pyrolysis of woody biomass. These newer options would enable existing crackers to produce bio-ethylene and bio-propylene.”

The role of process decarbonization

Process changes are initially focusing on electrifying energy usage such as steam generation, and then supplying that electricity from sustainable sources.

“The first efforts in decarbonizing processes will be applied to existing manufacturing plants, to make the most of that existing capital investment. The solutions need to be tailored to each process and can include carbon capture use and storage, energy efficiency, fuel switching, and circular resource recovery.

For greenfield processes, we have to consider that a new chemical plant being engineered now will still be operating in a 2050 net-zero world. So, we need to design in the latest proven decarbonized technologies and the provisions to upgrade as emerging low-carbon technology becomes available and economic.

Chris Mole of Worley.

Chris Mole

Global Sector Lead - Chemicals and Fuels

The role of resource stewardship

The chemicals industry takes product stewardship and end-of-life considerations seriously and has a strong track record in areas like the disposal of dangerous chemicals.

However, the waste and litter associated with used plastics has now become a significant social license issue for our customers.

“Plastics are a great example where we’re working with customers to convert this previously considered waste into energy, or feedstock, or fuel. There are a variety of existing and new processes being proposed, and our best-in-class ability to scale first-of-a-kind (FOAK) technologies puts us at the forefront of these activities.”

First-of-a-kind: from vision to market

“Scaling up FOAK solutions from a lab, pilot, or demonstration plant to industrial is complex,” says Mole. “We work alongside our customers at different project stages – from technology development right through to commercialization.”

Geert Reyniers, Worley Senior Director for Process & Technology continues, “When we consider the variety of technologies being introduced to decarbonize products and processes, FOAK expertise is essential for navigating the energy transition successfully. Whether it be one of the circular processes in the diagram below, or another transformational process, the structured approach is the same.”

Infographic showing circular processes in the chemicals industry.
Feedstocks. Processes. End-of-life.

This requires a process for assessing the technology and then systematically moving it through the development. This includes the design and engineering itself, factoring in sustainability, the utilities and logistics required, the fabrication and construction, and then all the way through to ongoing operations.

“Essential to the process is a learning mindset that brings the experience of the past and includes insights and improvements at each assessment stage,” says Reyniers. “At the same time, risk management is always a focus, alongside innovation. Successfully implementing and commercializing these new technologies is the goal: for our customers, us, and for a net-zero future.”

Sustainability is more than just an environmental viewpoint

The service we offer our customers in the chemical sector is more than just about the requirement to decarbonize.

“We work with Advisian, our consulting business, to help our customers consider the sustainable management of water and land, and oversee the vital interactions with local communities, indigenous owners, and governments,” says Mole. “We believe that sustainability goes beyond simply an environmental viewpoint.”

We recently launched Sustainable Solutions. This incorporates sustainable thinking into project design and delivery and our people can apply the latest sustainability methodology to project management, supply chainengineering, and construction.

“Sustainable Solutions allows us to support our customers in reducing the environmental footprint of their plant and its future operations,” he says. “This means we help them get one step closer to their net-zero commitments.”

The path to net zero is clear

Mole believes that the global climate response demands vision, innovation, and collaboration. He thinks a low-carbon future for chemicals is possible. And that it can sustain the environment and our lifestyles, all within social expectations.

“It’s about visualizing and working together along the supply chain to drive technological advancements at pace and scale, implementing strategies and policies and utilizing the resources we have in a responsible way.

“We know we’re on a journey with our customers,” says Mole. “And more than ever, we’re committed to helping them shift their operations towards a more sustainable future.”

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