FOR an atheist, Professor Peter Atkins has a great deal of faith.
But his faith lies not in God, but in the chemical industry. And the important contribution it can make to today’s and tomorrow’s world.
“Without the chemical industry, the world would lack colour,” he said. “We would live in Stone Age conditions, underfed, dressed in skins, without the many devices that ease our lives and entertain us. Our lives would be short and painful.”
The retired chemistry professor from Oxford University in the UK says chemistry is hugely important for all of us.
Its problem is that it is often misunderstood.
“Most people know absolutely nothing about how the everyday products they use are made,” said Lawrence D. Sloan, President and CEO, Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates. “And having been a part of the chemical industry my entire professional life, it is extremely frustrating.”
The petrochemical industry converts raw materials such as water, oil, natural gas, air, metals, and minerals into more valuable products that manufacturers then use to make – in essence – all the products we want, need and use every day. To put it into context, over 96% of everything made in the world is based on chemicals.
But part of the problem for the chemical industry is that the public doesn’t view it as one of the most important industries in the world – and that’s a perception that must change.
“How that can be changed remains the $64,000 question,” said Lawrence. “Our organisation, and others like it, has a major PR challenge to regularly ‘educate to advocate’ our elected officials so they understand the critical impact our industry has on society. Because not one industry contributes as much as we do to the modern world.”
He described the chemical industry as the ‘unsung hero’.
“Too many feel the industry bears no responsibility for the health and welfare of its employees or for the environment,” he said. “But it’s foolhardy to think the industry wants to inflict harm on itself just to try to increase its margins by an incremental percentage point or two.”
At the Annual Dinner of the Chemical Industries Association, INEOS Communications Director Tom Crotty told delegates: “If government is genuinely committed to a manufacturing resurgence they need to understand that a thriving chemical industry is vital.”
For it is the chemical industry’s products and technologies that are used to make everything from paints to plastics, textiles to technology, and medicines to mobile phones.
But as an energy-intensive industry, it needs access to competitively-priced energy supplies if it is to survive.
That is not a problem in America which is currently enjoying a manufacturing renaissance thanks to the abundant supplies of low-cost shale gas, which have driven down the cost of the raw materials that manufacturers need.
But it is for Europe where energy costs are spiralling out of control, leaving manufacturers struggling to compete in global markets.
Tom, who is also President of the CIA, said Britain urgently needed to address its energy base if it wanted a thriving UK chemical industry.
During a recent survey of the UK’s glass and glazing industry by Pilkingtons UK, the rising cost of materials – due to energy costs – emerged as the ‘greatest obstacle’ currently facing their businesses. And it was, they said, their biggest challenge over the next two years.
The importance of the chemical industry, which supplies raw materials to manufacturers, therefore cannot be underestimated. The two are linked inextricably. And it is very often where innovation starts.
“Folks take for granted the incredible scientific discoveries the specialty chemical industry continues to make to help create the electronics, life-saving drugs, and smart energy homes we have come to enjoy and depend upon,” said Lawrence.
INEOS, which employs 17,000 people at 65 sites in 16 countries, is proud of what it does to make people’s lives easier and more comfortable.
It alone makes:
Solvents that are used in the production of insulin and antibiotics.
Efficient and effective biofuels to improve the sustainability of modern transport.
Chlorine to purify drinking water.
Synthetic oils that help to reduce CO2 emissions.
Modern, strong but lightweight plastics to package, protect and preserve food and drink.
Materials to insulate houses, offices, electrical and telecommunications cables.
Products that have helped car manufacturers to make cars stronger and lighter and more fuel efficient, which have again helped to reduce CO2 emissions.
The list goes on – as does the work behind the scenes to seek innovative solutions to many of the challenges facing society today.
“Chemical products and technologies are used in almost every area of the world economy,” said a spokesman for International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), the worldwide voice of the chemical industry. “And as the global economy grows, it will increase the demand for the chemical industry’s products. This growth drives product innovation, and the industry creates new products every year while striving to improve production processes and use resources more efficiently.”
In 2014, American Chemistry invested $59 billion in research and development, the equivalent of more than $185 per person in the United States.
“We invest more to innovate than the electronic, automobile, and healthcare industries,” said Cal Dooley, CEO and President of the American Chemistry Council. “The business of chemistry excels at continuously bringing new, imaginative and innovative ideas to market— and tomorrow will be no different.”
The American Chemistry Council says, though, for its chemical industry to continue its ground-breaking work, the US must also adopt an energy strategy that takes advantage of its home-grown energy resources, including its vast reserves of shale gas.
It is a view shared by Steve Elliott, Chief Executive of the CIA.
He wants Britain’s $50 billion chemical industry to take advantage of the energy under its feet rather than rely on imported gas.
“The UK’s own shale reserves will contribute to more secure gas supplies and support jobs and growth,” he said. “Without this, gas imports are projected to reach 75% of needs by 2030. UK shale gas will help to keep the lights on while the UK makes its transition to a green economy.”
As one of the world’s largest industries – in 2014 its revenues exceeded $5.4 trillion – the chemical industry has a profound effect on the world we live in and will do in the future as society strives to create a healthier, safer and more sustainable world.
“Unfortunately, the word ‘green’ means different things to people,” said Lawrence. “Some may feel that no chemical plant is ‘green’ by nature of the fact that it is handling chemicals, which in their minds is bad.”
The chemical industry knows that it needs to change the public’s perception if it wants them to understand where the industry fits into modern life.
“Strong, competitive chemical industries underpin all great manufacturing nations in the developed world because chemicals and materials are the essential component on which manufacturing is built,” said Steve. “Without its processes and ‘building block’ products, most of the rest of manufacturing could not take place.”
He said although the industry was energy-intensive, its products, in their lifetime, saved more than twice the energy it took to make them.
“We are delivering the green future,” he said.