Scientists are on a Mission for Sustainable Practices

Amy Hawthorne

by Amy Hawthorne

21st January 2015

The manufacturing, chemical and science industries have been known to receive bad press – people are cautious of the effect that certain materials and processes can have on the environment and are calling for more sustainable practices.

The public concern is understandable. Although the industries are making advancements in so many areas such as healthcare and technology, they do have a responsibility to the earth. It’s important that we do not use up resources and harm the planet in the process.

Over the past few months, I’ve come across articles that inform of the modern and innovative – and overall more sustainable – practices that have been devised by scientists. Scientists are increasingly finding more alternate ways of approaching certain processes that will be kinder to the environment.

Here are a few of the amazing advancements in science that show we can practice green manufacturing and green chemistry whilst still being able to achieve scientific breakthroughs.

New Material can keep Carbon Dioxide out of the Atmosphere

Carbon dioxide is a prime contributor to global warming, yet it’s regularly released into the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels and cut down forests (something we do a lot).

Researchers have now developed a cheap material that can actually absorb carbon dioxide and prevent it from building up in the air. The material is a modified type of asphalt that forms our roads, known as asphalt-porous carbon (A-PC).

The asphalt acts like a sponge and can store 114% of its weight in carbon dioxide. This is a simple and cheap sustainable practice that allows us to not only minimise the amount of CO2 flowing into the air, but also allows us to easily extract it later on.

Bacteria could be the Answer to a Future without Oil

We need to reduce our reliance on oil, as it’s no longer classed as a cheap and widely available resource. Instead, oil can disastrously damage the environment whether this is due to spills or the by-products associated with burning petroleum products.

Additionally, there are health concerns that have arisen from using petroleum in our daily products such as make-up and food supplements. An alternative was needed, and researchers from Newcastle University may have discovered a less harmful option.

Now, engineered bacterial cells may be used instead of petroleum. Researchers have been studying a bacterium that lives in soil and the human gut, which is good at making and secreting enzymes that act as catalysts for lots of useful processes.

This handy bacterium can be grown on a range of cheap and renewable resources, including farmland waste and it can even be used as a replacement for processes in the chemical industry.

Chemical Leasing could Reduce Environmental Impact


Researchers are coming up with sustainable practices to protect the environment, such as “Chemical Leasing”.

Chemical leasing” – a new business model with the aim of reducing environmental impact caused by the overuse of chemicals.

This business model has been adopted by large companies such as Coca-Cola, Carlsberg and Ikea and it works by modifying the way chemicals are exchanged between businesses. Rather than paying for chemicals in bulk, companies instead pay for the services rendered by the chemicals. For example, if the chemical is being used to treat water, they would pay based on the volume of water that is treated.

The plan is that this would discourage the overuse of chemicals and lead to better management of chemicals. Subsequently, this might benefit the environment by saving on energy and resources.

New Technique to Reduce our Energy Use

Scientists from The University of Nottingham have found a way to dramatically reduce the amount of energy used in the refinement of crude oil.

The team have discovered a “chemical sponge” that is able to separate a number of important gases from the mixtures generated during crude oil refinement. This is a much more sustainable practice compared to the existing process, which involves using huge amounts of energy to separate the gases.

This discovery can reduce carbon emissions and make the whole process more environmentally-friendly. The porous “sponge” allows us to extract the most useful materials, and the gases that are absorbed can be removed without significant energy input. The material is also reusable.

 Waste Product Transformed into Valuable Chemicals

In 2014, scientists discovered an innovative way of replacing petroleum-based fuels and chemicals with a readily available, bio renewable material.

The new method involves converting lignin (a biomass waste product found in trees and cornstalks) into simple chemicals. In a further important development, a researcher has found a way to break down the highly resistant lignin into the appropriate units required for the process to work.

Lignin is a waste product of the paper industry and is burned as a low-value fuel, making this an economical as well as environmentally-friendly option.

As long as we keep working towards more sustainable practices, we may be able to slow down the rate at which we’re impacting the earth. The discoveries here show just a few ways that modern technology and knowledge can improve industrial and chemical processes.

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