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By Lynn L. Bergeson and Margaret R. Graham

On February 8, 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a technology assessment report to congressional requestors entitled Chemical Innovation:  Technologies to Make Processes and Products More Sustainable.  GAO states it conducted this technology assessment “to explore, among other things, the opportunities, challenges, and federal roles in sustainable chemistry.”  This report discusses (1) how stakeholders define and assess sustainable chemistry; (2) available or developing technologies to make chemical processes and products more sustainable; and (3) how the federal government, industry and others contribute to the development and use of such technologies.  GAO states it is not making recommendations in this report, but is identifying strategic implications.

As part of its assessment, GAO interviewed stakeholders from government, industry, and academia; convened a meeting of experts on sustainable chemistry technologies and approaches; and surveyed a non-generalizable sample of chemical companies.  GAO identified three categories of more sustainable chemistry technologies -- catalysts, solvents, and continuous processing -- that demonstrate both progress and potential:

  • Catalysts reduce the energy input required for a chemical process and allow for more efficient use of materials.  Stakeholders suggested future research be directed at developing less toxic or renewable catalysts, including those that are metal-free or those from earth-abundant metals such as iron. 
  • Solvents are used in many chemical processes but can create waste issues and be toxic.  Alternatives include solvents from renewable, non-petroleum raw materials and solvents such as water that are less hazardous to human health and the environment, among other qualities. 
  • An alternative to traditional batch processing is continuous processing, in which materials react as they flow along a system of channels, pipes, or tubes. Compared to batch processing, continuous processing uses materials more efficiently, generates less waste, and has a smaller physical footprint.

GAO also identified, through its interaction with stakeholders, the following strategic implications of sustainable chemistry; and potential options to address these challenges and realize the full potential of these technologies:

  • Breakthrough technologies in sustainable chemistry could transform how the industry thinks about performance, function, and synthesis.  Sustainable chemistry creates opportunities to use a different conceptual framework that allows industry to create molecules with better performance. 
  • The establishment of an organized constituency, with the involvement of both industry and government, could help make sustainable chemistry a priority.  An industry consortium, working in partnership with a key supporter at the federal level, could lead to an effective national initiative or strategy.
  • A national initiative that considers sustainable chemistry in a systematic manner could be useful.  Such an effort could encourage collaborations among industry, academia and the government, similar to other national technology Initiatives.
  • There are opportunities for the federal government to address industry-wide challenges.  Federal attention that facilitates development of standard tools for assessment and a robust definition could help clarify relevant participants in the field and improve information available for decision-makers at all levels

More information on the report and its strategic implications is available on GAO’s website.