A New U.S. Chemical Industry

by Bala Subramaniam, University of Kansas

In the year 2034, there will be a thriving chemical industry in the United States based on shale gas and biomass, rather than petroleum. Production of these chemical intermediates will require less energy and result in fewer harmful emissions. In states such as Kansas, there could be many small biorefineries dotting the landscape. Located close to the source of the biomass, they would provide needed jobs in rural communities and a high-value export for farmers.

The global demand for chemicals used for making everyday products such as plastic containers, shampoos, detergents, synthetic fabrics and medicines, is increasing dramatically, thanks to rising demand from populous countries such as China and India.  The global chemical industry is expected to be a $6 trillion/year industry by 2020, with the United States accounting for a third of this output. Today, chemicals are made primarily from crude oil and coal.  However, to meet the increasing demand, alternate feedstock sources such as shale gas and biomass will become important.

The availability of inexpensive shale gas is considered to be a game-changer for the U.S. chemical industry.  In addition to methane (used mainly for power generation), shale gas also contains ethane and propane, key building blocks for the chemical industry. More than $100 billion have been invested to build facilities in the United States that produce ethylene (a commodity chemical) from ethane.  With the right technologies in place, the U.S. chemical industry could vault into a major manufacturer and exporter of chemicals derived from shale gas and biomass within the next decade or two. This will create thousands of indigenous job opportunities throughout the United States.

How can we get there?  Novel, resource-efficient catalytic technologies, that conserve both feedstock and energy, are needed to make petrochemical equivalents from shale gas and biomass.  The discovery of new catalysts that can transform these raw materials to desired products at relatively mild process pressure and temperature is essential. A 2013 report from the International Energy Agency identifies 18 high volume chemicals that account 80 percent of the energy consumed by the entire chemical industry. These chemicals, whose consumption is expected to grow, provide immediate and viable targets for development of resource-efficient catalytic technologies.

Investments are needed to spur both fundamental and applied research in the area of catalysis and reactor engineering, specifically targeted at utilizing shale gas components and biomass for producing various chemical intermediates.  To expedite discovery and innovation, synergistic collaborations between stakeholders in the value chain are essential.  Concerted partnerships between federal agencies, state agencies, universities, and industry are urgently needed to reduce risk and expedite R&D aimed at commercialization of promising technologies.

Dr. Bala Subramaniam is the Dan F. Servey Distinguished Professor, Department of Chemical & Petroleum Engineering in the School of Engineering at the University of Kansas. He is also Director, KU Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis (CEBC) and Associate Editor, Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, published by the American Chemical Society. His research has been supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation.

If you want to make sure that we realize the benefits from this and other scientific advances, let your members of Congress know that federal funding for science matters and should be made a higher national priority. The Science Coalition’s Science Matters toolkit can help you get started.
Categories Chemistry