View from the USA: The government is on the hunt for ground-breaking solutions.
Published in Bio-Based World News
November 8, 2016
In the latest in a series of guest views from the USA, Michele Jalbert, chief operating officer, and Corinne Young, chief advocate, of the Renewable Chemicals & Advanced Materials Alliance (re:chem), address US government efforts to promote green chemistry. Over two decades ago, the “12 Principles of Green Chemistry” codified a new “systems perspective” for thinking about chemistry. These principles encouraged scientists to focus on designing processes and materials to reduce or eliminate hazardous substances when they are first created. The approach offered a stark contrast to the pollution control efforts so prevalent in the early 90s, which sought to mitigate hazards and limit toxic exposure after the fact. Since those early days, green chemistry has progressed from a transformative vision to a burgeoning movement — enabling safer molecules designed from the get-go, for a sustainable economy and a healthier world. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was an early champion of this systems approach, launching the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards (PGCCA) in 1996. Each year, these prestigious annual awards recognize novel chemical technologies that incorporate the principles of green chemistry into chemical design, manufacture, and use. The PGCCA program calls out the best innovative thinking in the green chemistry arena, looking for ground-breaking solutions to all kinds of environmental problems.
The environmental benefit has been significant. Per the EPA program office, over the last two decades, PGCCA-winning technologies have:
•Eliminated 826 million pounds of hazardous chemicals and solvents each year – enough to fill almost 3,800 railroad tank cars or a train nearly 47 miles long.
•Saved 21 billion gallons of water each year—the amount used by 820,000 people annually.
•Eliminated 7.8 billion pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents released to air each year—equal to taking 810,000 automobiles off the road.
These benefits represent just the 109 PGCCA winners over 20 years – when the more than 1500 other nominees are also considered, the environmental benefits are multiplied many times over.
The EPA recently announced that nominations are now being accepted for the 2017 program, with all application packages due December 31, 2016. While applications must incorporate a significant chemistry component, the EPA holds an expansive view, focusing on the use of chemistry for source reduction. Thus, chemical technologies that include recycling, treatment, or disposal may meet the scope of the program if they offer source reduction over competing technologies.
There are typically six awards each year, with this year’s categories including greener synthetic pathways, greener reaction conditions and the design of greener chemicals. There are categories for academic institutions, small business and a special category focused on climate changes for technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Those considering this program should move quickly – the EPA process is rigorous and comprehensive. Investing in thoughtful preparation of the PGCCA application, however, pays significant dividends. In the US, winning the PGCCA has significantly benefited those companies pioneering in green chemistry – they enjoy appreciable marketing and reputation enhancement. Successfully navigating through the rigorous PGCCA application process also introduces the EPA early to a company’s novel chemistry, facilitating US regulatory review when the product is ready for introduction to the market.
The Renewable Chemical & Materials Alliance (re:chem) was founded by four PGCCA-winning companies, which is one of the reasons doors open to us when we are moving a policy agenda forward in Washington DC. Having successfully shepherded several winning nominations, we can attest to the tangible and intangible benefits of participating in this program. The EPA deserves credit for pioneering – then institutionalizing – national recognition of the promise of green chemistry.
Special to The Digest
A Billion Ton Bioeconomy. For those of us who have worked in this space for the last decade, the US government’s aspiration to grow the sector to such size and scope is music to our ears. At the Renewable Chemical & Advanced Materials Alliance (re:chem) we laud the federal cross-agency effort currently underway to realize this future. That initiative is bringing together the Departments of Energy (DOE), Agriculture (USDA), Interior (DOI), Transportation (DOT), Defense (DoD), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) — all working to triple the size of the US bioeconomy by 2030.
It will be a challenge. As the Digest’s own Jim Lane recently pointed out, the state of the advanced bioeconomy industry is fraught with risk. “Projects have not materialized in the numbers that would support rapid growth because of immature technology (expressed in unreliable operation, or high costs), and poor returns for the risk profile associated with technologies as they mature.” In this context, to reach that Billion Ton Bioeconomy goal, government policy has to be aligned, effective and realistic.
At re:chem, we believe the path toward such sector growth fundamentally requires product diversity to cross-subsidize those elements of the bioeconomy that are not immediately profitable. The Billion Ton Bioeconomy initiative specifically emphasizes the production and use of biofuels, bioproducts, and biopower. It is this trio’s breadth and depth within the sector that promises its future expansion. And, the last several years of re:chem advocacy have helped bring about some significant policy developments to drive this potential growth. More USDA and DOE funding programs than ever before now support the critical bioeconomy trio.
DOE’s recently issued Project Development for Pilot and Demonstration Scale Manufacturing of Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biopower funding opportunity certainly suggested great promise. The $90 million-plus government investment comes at a critical point for a sector laid waste by plummeting oil prices, for those companies that have struggled through some very dark days. It could have been the catalyst for true sector development, had the promise of its title been realized in the technical nuances of this funding opportunity.
Unfortunately, just at a time when investment is most needed, company after company examined, assessed and walked away from this funding opportunity. Why? Because the primary product output for allowable cellulosic, algal and biogas feedstocks had to be a statutorily defined advanced biofuel. Further, that biofuel had to be a liquid at STP (Standard Temperature and Pressure, 25 °C and 1 atmosphere pressure) conditions, suitable for use as an infrastructure compatible blendstock that could be co-processed or co-distributed with petroleum derived fuels. And, applications only proposing to produce alcohols or other intermediates without conversion to finished biofuels were disqualified.
While co-products were allowed, this pilot and demonstration funding opportunity’s singular focus on a specific biofuel output precluded many emerging bioeconomy players. The list of companies opting not to pursue this opportunity includes not only renewable chemical manufacturers. Companies with a hybrid portfolio of biofuels and biochemical products also found the highly restrictive output requirements were simply too burdensome. These are companies poised to deliver on the Billion Ton vision. And, unfortunately, in this instance, government policy missed a huge opportunity to help.
This particular funding opportunity stands in contradiction to the Billion Ton vision — it also ignores lessons learned about the inherent need for collaboration all along value chain, both up and downstream. We’ve learned no start up can solve all value chain bottlenecks and that forward-looking policy must embrace this reality.