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Catalysis Unlocks Sustainable Feedstocks for Chemicals

In recent research published in the journal OneEarth, scientists from Griffith University proposed using catalysis to transform waste into resources, creating a cleaner and more resilient chemical industry.

chemical feedstocks

Image Credit: BOY ANTHONY/

The chemical industry is fundamental to global development, driving innovation and supplying essential products that underpin modern life.

However, its dependence on unsustainable fossil resources has significantly threatened global ecosystems through climate change and chemical pollution.

The commentary published in Cell Press proposes a transformative solution: using catalysis to harness sustainable waste resources, transitioning the industry from a linear to a circular economy.

If we look at recent statistics, the chemical industry contributes a staggering US$5.7 trillion to the global economy and sustains 150 million jobs worldwide, excluding refined fossil fuels. But it remains the largest industrial energy consumer and the third-largest emitter of direct CO2 emissions globally.

Karen Wilson, Study Co-Lead Author and Director, Centre for Catalysis and Clean Energy, from Griffith University

In 2022, the industry emitted 935 million metric tons of CO2 during primary chemical production. Its operations have significantly contaminated water sources and released toxic chemicals into the environment, perpetuating a cycle of ecological harm.

Catalytic processes could minimize reliance on finite fossil fuels and curb CO2 emissions significantly by harnessing agricultural, municipal, and plastic waste as feedstocks. This feedstock transition not only mitigates environmental damage but also addresses vulnerabilities in the industry's supply chain, which are susceptible to geopolitical and natural disruptions.

Adam Lee, Study Co-Lead Author and Professor, Griffith University

Catalysis has historically played a key role in transforming fossil resources into essential fuels and products, and now offers a beacon of hope for revolutionizing the chemical industry and promoting a circular economy,” added Professor Wilson.

However, the researchers recognize that achieving this vision requires concerted innovation in catalyst formulation and process integration.

Professor Wilson noted, “Prioritizing Earth-abundant elements over precious metals will unlock sustainable catalytic systems for the efficient conversion of organic waste into benign and recyclable products.”

Already, pioneering initiatives such as the co-location of different industries in Kalundborg, Denmark to foster symbiosis have demonstrated new collaborative models to improve resource efficiency and waste reduction. Catalysis offers a pathway towards sustainability, enabling us to transform waste into valuable resources and pave the way for a circular economy.

Adam Lee, Study Co-Lead Author and Professor, Griffith University

In the OneEarth commentary, the team explored sources of catalysis for sustainable and circular chemical processes through the following lenses:

  • Catalysis to facilitate waste biomass utilization
  • Catalysis to remediate chemical pollution
  • Catalysis for circular polymers

Journal Reference:

Abbas, A., et al. (2024). Catalysis at the intersection of sustainable chemistry and a circular economy. One Earth.

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