Praise the Sun - The Key to Zero-waste Industries?
Chemical engineers at the (UoM) in the UK have been able to successfully manipulate carbon nitride by using artificial sunlight to synthesise fluorine-based molecules, the building blocks of many agrochemical and pharmaceutical applications, via a process known as ‘photocatalysis’, potentially setting them on the path to the ‘holy grail’ of zero-waste industry manufacturing.
Following the new findings which were published on November 11th in the journal Dr Carmine D’Agostino at UoM, who collaborated with The University of Trieste (Italy), the CNR Institute of Materials for Electronics and Magnetism (Italy), and the CIC biomaGUNE (Spain), said “The chemical industry is a fundamental pillar for economic and technological development. Yet, it is often associated with environmental pollution and climate change. In recent years, efforts are being made to shift the current approach to industrial chemistry towards a greener, more sustainable and zero-waste approach.”
A few items to note here are the specific definitions of things such as ‘carbon nitride’, ‘photocatalysis’, ‘fluorine’ and why synthesising fluorine-based molecules is so essential to a potentially greener manufacturing industry.
Carbon nitride itself is a metal-free, non-toxic solid made of Earth-abundant elements of carbon and nitrogen, and researchers have discovered that, through simple manipulations of this solid, they are able to exploit artificial solar light for the synthesis of organic molecules containing fluorine.
Fluorine itself is a chemical element critical for the production of nuclear material for power plants, the insulation of electric towers and is used in the production of plastic.
The concept known as ‘photocatalysis’ is where artificial light or sunlight is able to trigger chemical reactions at ambient conditions, which would otherwise require more energy-intensive processes. The process itself is not too dissimilar to natural photosynthesis used by plants to harness the sun's energy. However, the materials for creating this process in an artificial environment tends to be very expensive and not very efficient, making it difficult to quantify as viable on an industrial scale.
So what does this mean for the manufacturing world, and how would it lead us to a zero-waste industry?
For starters, the industrialisation of the photocatalytic process would potentially mean that we, as a society, wouldn’t need to rely on fossil fuels as a primary source of energy in industrial productions by providing cleaner and most sustainable chemicals.
“The team at The University of Manchester led by Dr Carmine D’Agostino, together with Luke Forster (PhD student) and Dr Graziano Di Carmine (Research Associate) played a pivotal role in unravelling, through the use of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) techniques, the fundamental changes in carbon nitride properties responsible for the increased efficiency of the nano-engineered materials.”
Dr Carmine went on to state “This new exploitation of solar light for the synthesis of useful chemicals is a very promising technology, yet very challenging. In particular, the search of non-toxic, widely available and economically viable materials, able to harness solar energy for efficient chemical conversion holds the Holy Grail for such photochemical conversions.”
As such, a discovery of this magnitude could see the world change as we know it, and very much so for the better. With more sustainable methods of creating alternative energy sources cropping up more and more each year, it seems that we’re very much on the horizon of a breakthrough that could see the landscape of industrial production become greener than ever.
IMF: Variants Can Still Hurt Manufacturing Recovery
After a year of on-and-off manufacturing in the US, UK, and the eurozone, demand for goods surged early last week. Factories set growth records in April and May, suppliers started to recover, and US crude hit its highest price point since pre-COVID. As vaccination efforts immunise much of the US and UK populations, manufacturers are now able to fully ramp up their supply chains. In fact, GDP growth could approach double-digits by 2022.
Now, the ISM productivity measure has surpassed the 50-point mark that separates industry expansion from contraction. Since U.S. president Biden passed his US$1.9tn stimulus package and the UK purchasing managers index (PMI) increased to 65.6, both sides of the Atlantic are facing a much-welcomed manufacturing recovery.
Lingering Concerns Over COVID
Even as Spain, France, Italy, and Germany race to catch up, and mining companies pushed the FTSE 100 index of list shares to a monthly high of 7,129, some say that UK and US markets still suffer from a lack of confidence in raw material supplies. Yes, the Dow Jones has made up its 19,173-point crash of March 2020, and MSCI’s global stock index is at an all-time high.
Yet manufacturers around the world realise that these wins will be short-lived until pandemic supply chain bottlenecks are solved. If we keep the status quo, consumers will pay the price. In April, inflation in Germany reached 2.4%, and across the EU’s 19 member countries, overall prices have increased at an unusual pace. Some ask: Is this true recovery?
IMF: Current Boom Could Falter
Even as Elon Musk tweeted about chip shortages forcing Tesla to raise its prices, UK mining demand skyrocketed; housing markets lifted; and the pound sterling gained value. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), however, cautioned that manufacturing recovery won’t last long if COVID mutates into forms our vaccinations can’t touch. Kristalina Georgieva, Washington’s IMF director, noted that fewer than 1% of African citizens have been vaccinated: “Worldwide access to vaccines offers the best hope for stopping the coronavirus pandemic, saving lives, and securing a broad-based economic recovery”.
Across the globe, manufacturing companies are keeping a watchful eye on new developments in the spread of COVID. Though US FDA officials don’t think we’ll have to “start at square one” with new vaccines, the March 2021 World Economic Outlook states that “high uncertainty” surrounds the projected 6% global growth. Continued manufacturing success will in large part depend on “the path of the pandemic, the effectiveness of policy support, and the evolution of financial conditions”.
Mathias Cormann, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) concurred—without global immunisation, the estimated economic boom expected by 2025 could go kaput. “We need to...pursue an all-out effort to reach the entire world population”, Australia’s finance minister added. US$50bn to end COVID across the world, they imply, is a small investment to restart our economies.