“In 2030, Stenungsund will become a manufacturing hub for sustainable products in the chemical industry. Our business is based on renewable raw materials and energy, and contributes to a sustainable society,” says Lars Josefsson, President of INEOS.

The vision of a sustainable society and a thriving chemical industry was developed in 2010 by chemical companies AGA, Akzo Nobel, Borealis, INEOS and Perstorp – all active in the chemical cluster in Stenungsund on the Swedish west coast. Their chemical products are found in tubes, cables, plastics, paints, detergents, fuels, medicines and thousands of other places.

After World War II there was a rapid development of products based on fossil fuels, particularly oil and gas. The term “plastic age” was coined in 1951 when the first plastics exhibition was held in Sweden, “All about plastics.”

Plastics are just one example of products manufactured in the chemical industry, and fossil fuels account for more than 90 percent of the raw materials. There are many reasons to try to break dependence on oil and gas, among them access to declining reserves together with the climate effects of burning fossil fuels.

Let’s look at how green chemistry, good business and a sustainable future can become a reality.

Chemistry is the science of opportunity

In 20 years, large-scale fossil-based chemical industries could be relegated to history’s scrap heap – if you believe the visionaries from Stenungsund.

The vision: “Sustainable Chemistry 2030” is based on the interplay between a number of different components, including:

  • Transition to renewable resources. This is about biological materials such as rapeseed oil, straw, wood chips, algae, sugar cane, and waste from forestry and agriculture.
  • One man’s waste is another’s raw material. Household waste can be turned into gas that can be used to make the building blocks of plastics and other products. Other possible raw materials include industrial waste, recycled plastics and more. With new technology, it is now possible to separate undesirable constituents from cables and recycle thousands of tons of plastic cable.
  • That one takes a holistic approach to sustainability issues and that companies cooperate with each other and the surrounding community. Some companies are processing renewable raw materials and selling the chemical building blocks to other companies thereby contributing to the next step in the chemical process.

This ‘Chemistry Cluster’ in Stenungsund aims to use biogas and bio-ethanol plants to process renewable raw materials and various waste products. Excess heat from factories is sold back to the district heating system, the trains run on renewable fuels and purchased electricity is produced from renewable sources. The common heating plant is run on renewable fuels and waste.

This is a new kind of industrial ecosystem that is already happening. The infrastructure is mostly in place.

The really big news is that the organic molecules like ethylene, propylene, and natural gas in the future will no longer come from oil and gas but from renewable sources. The chemical processes in the factories are the same as before and the end products do not change.

“We were an integrated cluster that started this process in 2010 and formed a common vision. It required many players to achieve it, including the collaboration with academia, politicians and other industries. Another crucial reason why we achieved our vision was that there was a common and long-term chemistry policy,” says Lars Josefsson, President of INEOS, at a seminar about 2030, where various speakers described how the project “Sustainable Chemistry 2030 “became a reality.

The future is already here

The focus on green chemistry and renewable raw materials has already begun in Stenungsund. Companies participating in the vision have begun the journey towards 2030, and here are some examples:

  • Renewable fuel from rapeseed oil – In Stenungsund, Perstorp AB, has Scandinavia’s largest plant for the production of biodiesel (RME). It produces most of the renewable fuel components that today is part of Swedish diesel and Perstorp RME stands out in terms of sustainability. Life cycle analysis has shown that more than 60 percent of fossil carbon is replaced by biodiesel, compared with the EU criteria for bio-fuels of 35 percent.
  • Durable cables – Borealis is a new high-pressure plant that manufactures durable cable products. It cost SEK 4 billion to build. The company is now focusing more on developing materials for high-quality cables, especially for long-distance electricity transmission, with a lifespan of 50 years. Borealis is a world leader in the development of cable materials and has a research department of about 100 people. Electrical cables for power are in great demand and contribute to solving the world energy supply.
  • Environmentally friendly car washing – Every year, Akzo Nobel in Stenungsund spends about SEK 80 million on research and development. The company has developed products such as the water-based degreaser used in car washes. The products have revolutionized the cleaning of hard surfaces and in a paradigm shift have evolved from the use of solvent-based cleaners to aqueous degreasing.
  • Renewable paint components – Since 2010, Perstorp has manufactured the world’s first renewable penta component (Voxtar) for aqueous alkyd paint. The raw materials consist of biomethanol and bioethanol. Voxtar is used to make about 15 percent of the ink and provides improved drying characteristics and stability.

Then, now and in the future

There are many pieces to fall into place for the vision of “Sustainable Chemistry in 2030” to be realized. As usual, it is a combination of factors relating to consumer demands, legislation, policy, education, and investment capital. Let us assume that we are sitting at a seminar in 2030 listening to explanations of why green chemistry created a thriving chemical industry. Perhaps the speakers present the following arguments:

  • There were political instruments that were useful in creating sustainable chemistry. Politicians were far sighted, which made it possible for businesses to plan ahead and dare to invest in the conversion.
  • Consumers continued to demand green products and actually bought such products to an increasing extent. The same applied to public tenders.
  • Companies got wind in their sails, made money and continued to bet on the winning concept. Interest from investors increased and capital was used to invest in the Swedish chemical industry.
  • The plastic and chemical industry succeeded in reaching out to the world and focused on changing their raw materials and promoting their benefits.
  • Chemistry’s reputation grew and chemistry programs at colleges and universities became increasingly attractive. Working at a chemical company was a high status job. The industry’s commitment to innovation and collaboration with academia was a benefit to both sides.

The article was published in April 2012