The breadth of the chemicals sector underscores the difficulty of decarbonizing an industry with an extensive value chain and deep sectoral interconnections. Large amounts of natural gas and petroleum derivatives are used by the chemicals sector to generate building block chemicals.
For example, steam cracking processes use natural gas liquid feedstocks, such as ethane, to produce valuable olefins (e.g., ethylene, propylene, and butadiene). Olefins are critical building blocks for a variety of end products including plastics, detergents, and coatings. However, olefin production is energy and carbon intensive. End-uses for chemical products include:
- Basic chemicals such as ethanol, gases, and other compounds used in manufacturing processes;
- Consumer products such as plastics and detergents;
- Specialty chemicals such as paints, coatings, and adhesives; and
- Agricultural chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizer.
Reducing carbon emissions and energy input are key aspects of sustainable chemistry goals to design and use chemicals with lower impacts on humans and environmental health. Broadly, sustainable chemistry can be defined as the design, development, and use of chemicals and materials that have lower energy consumption and emissions; are less toxic to human health and the environment; have reduced natural resource impacts; and are designed for reduced waste and increased recycling capability across the product lifecycle.