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Could Bio-Based Chemicals Replace Petrochemicals in the UK Chemical Industry?

The UK chemical industry is the country’s biggest manufacturing exporter, generating £50 billion total annual turnover as of 2019, representing one of the largest and most diverse industry sectors in the country.

As the chemicals industry produces such diverse products necessary for our everyday lives, from plastic bottles and beauty products to fertilisers, there has been an increasing interest in the environmental impact and how to make the industry more “green”. This article investigates how the UK chemicals industry is evolving from petrochemicals to more bio-based alternatives.

UK chemical industry research budget at a seven year high

This month, the UK chemical industry increased annual spending on research and development by 3.4% - the highest level for seven years, according to a report from the Office of National Statistics.

Much of this research is considering environmental impact, sustainable bio-based chemicals and ‘green chemistry’. But at what stage is this research, and how quickly will it become mainstream? Are more traditional chemical sources still vital?

(Saltend Chemicals Park has had £500 million invested in development over recent years, manufacturing clothing, paints, pharmaceuticals and packaging)

Is green chemistry the answer to reducing carbon emissions?

Simply put, green chemistry is the collective effort within the industry to help reduce the environmental negative impact carbon emissions have, by using alternative products.

There is a positive outlook on the potential to make this happen, as UK industry experts recognise the need for highly skilled UK chemical workers that will in turn bring new opportunities to manufacture high value bio-based chemicals in large quantities.

In LBNet’s latest report, chemistry and biotechnology experts recognised 10 bio-based chemicals in particular which the UK have a solid case to develop and commercialise.

Included in the top ten were Lactic Acid, (a chemical used to make PLA, which can be utilised for biodegradable plastics), 2,5-Furandicarboxylic acid/FDCA (a stronger alternative to PET, which is used to make plastic bottles, food packaging and carpets), and Itaconic acid (a replacement for petroleum-based acrylic acid - used in making resins for high-performance marine and automotive components).

Petrochemicals growth predicted to rise through to 2050

As the UK has invested in cutting pollution and carbon emission, other countries are investing in more petrochemical opportunities. There has been rapid growth from India and China propelling the demand for petrochemical products. Oil companies such as Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell are planning to invest in petrochemical plants as the demand for plastics continues to increase in emerging economies.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report that said government efforts to encourage recycling in order to curb carbon emissions would have only a minor impact on petrochemical growth. “Although substantial increases in recycling and efforts to curb single-use plastics take place, especially led by Europe, Japan and Korea, these efforts will be far outweighed by the sharp increase in developing economies of plastic consumption,” it said.

The report said petrochemical projects would account for 7 percent of the gas demand increase between 2017 and 2030, and 4 percent of the increase projected for 2050.

According to Hydrocarbon Processing’s Construction Boxscore Database, more than 280 new petrochemical projects were announced from 2016–2018, with 158 of those projects in Asia-Pacific, and 106 in the US. Only 5% of new projects were announced in Western Europe, showing the difference in priorities.

University partnerships with chemical firms are vital to green advancement

In order to make green chemistry a viable commercial option for the firms, a great deal of research and development is required before chemicals can be mass produced. Strategic collaborations between universities and firms within the UK will play an important role in the commercialisation of bio-based chemicals.

One such collaboration occurred earlier this year, when The University of Nottingham announced a new partnership with the CPI (Centre for Process Innovation).

As part of this agreement, CPI acts as a catalyst, bringing together the University, businesses, government and investors to convert ideas and research into the mainstream chemicals through connecting partners with the right experts, equipment, facilities, and funding.

CPI and their partners will also benefit from the use of state-of-the-art facilities, including the GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratory for Sustainable Chemistry and the sustainable processing laboratories opening later this year.

CPI and the University are already working closely on projects such as the production of sustainable aviation fuel, with the new partnership agreement allowing initiatives to advance rapidly, as well as providing a collaborative environment for new chemicals research and innovation.

Petrochemicals will remain a key player until sustainable alternatives become mainstream

The fact is petrochemicals are likely to remain a vital part of the modern world as our need for plastics is still huge. Greener alternatives are still in their infancy, and many countries internationally are not invested in cutting their environmental impact.

Until governments around the world decide to make changes, then petrochemicals will remain a key player in the world’s economy. According to the IEA forecast, the petrochemical sector will account for one-third of oil demand growth to 2030, increasing to almost half by 2050. In addition, the report predicts that the production of key plastics will more than double between 2010 and 2050.

UK chemical industry sees high demand for skilled process, project and mechanical engineers

With new projects and opportunities set to rise across the UK chemical industry, both within petrochemicals and green chemistry, and within the wider international chemicals industry, many operators are facing new diverse workforce demands and increasing competition when searching for workers with the right skills for their projects.

Speaking on the rising demands within the UK chemical industry, Client Services Manager at First Recruitment Group, Anthony Fallows said:

“Firms looking to hire in specialities such as petrochemicals, inorganics, polymers and fuel additives are finding it difficult to select and hire the right talent, as competition remains high. We are still seeing a huge demand for skilled process, project, HSE, and mechanical engineers, from our chemical clients. We are also seeing a huge demand in research and development roles as our European clients look for new ways to make chemicals greener. We have a huge database of skilled candidates which we are constantly growing in order to meet demand.”

At First Recruitment Group, we have over 22 years of experience in providing skilled chemicals workers in the UK, working hard to source the correct talent for our clients hiring and project needs.

If you are looking for a chemical recruitment agency, that offers full compliance and expert hiring knowledge, please contact our Client Services Manager, Anthony Fallows on 01925 909257 or email Anthony.fallows@firstrg.com.


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