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We need the chemical industry, but we must change it

From deadly heatwaves to fires and floods, the evidence is piling up that climate change is a painful, expensive reality.

Global energy use reached a record high in 2022 at more than 600 exajoules, according to the annual Statistical Review by the Energy Institute, a trade group. That is double the amount consumed in 1985, and quadruple the level in 1965. Energy use correlates directly to carbon emissions, and the chemical industry is one of the big industrial sectors that has a real opportunity to drastically reduce the amount of energy it uses.

If it were a country, the chemical industry would be the world’s fifth most significant greenhouse gas emitter, behind China, the United States, India and Russia. It emits about 2.4 gigatons of greenhouse gas equivalents annually, almost 5% of the world’s total

The global, $5 trillion chemical industry faces a reckoning. Chemical production is expected to quadruple by 2050 to meet ever-increasing demand; but the industry needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than half to meet sustainability goals.

The bottom line is that for modern society to keep functioning, we need to produce everything from medicines to food products, flavorings, cosmetics, plastics and, in the long term, even fuel, in a more sustainable way.

Current chemical manufacturing processes generate too much waste and use too much energy to be sustainable. Most chemical manufacturing involves petroleum feedstock, and catalysis through lots of heat, pressure, and the use of metals (both rare earth metals and heavy metals). The heat created wastes energy, and the amount of physical waste produced from these processes is exorbitant, not to mention costly to dispose of.

Yet even as it grows, the chemical industry’s emissions can be cut, perhaps one day even to zero, if we can find a happy medium between how nature creates chemicals and how the traditional chemical industry does it.

At enginzyme, we’re doing exactly that. Inspired by biology, we’re coming up with ways to do all kinds of chemistry with enzymes at low temperatures. The idea has been around for some time, especially in fermentation, but enginzyme is a pioneer when it comes to making it practical for the chemical industry to put enzymes to work. By creating a modern process environment that is low-energy, low-waste, and truly sustainable, we can make “the impossible possible” for large-scale, sustainable industrial production for future generations.

No need to scrap existing infrastructure

In nature, chemical transformations are made with enzyme catalysis, which is what we are using to replace heavy metal catalysis. This allows transformations to take place at a low temperature, with a drastic reduction in the amount of by-products.

Enginzyme has figured out how to bind enzymes to particles so they can take the place of heavy metals and be used in the kinds of flow reactors that chemical engineers are accustomed to. Our team creates custom manufacturing processes that can easily be added to existing infrastructure.

The broader implications are stunning.

If 10% of the chemical industry implemented enginzyme’s technology, the potential annual fall in emissions would be 0.15 gigatons. That is the equivalent of eliminating all of the cars in the U.K.

Given that the chemical industry is expected to quadruple in size by 2050, the reduction potential rises to 0.6 Gt emissions, i.e. the equivalent of all of Australia’s annual emissions or all of the annual greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. agricultural sector.

There is no longer any doubt that reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions output is an urgent priority. The chemical industry can lead the way by adapting nature's methods to modern production.

At enginzyme, we're ready to move.

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