The International Organization for Chemical Sciences in Development, in collaboration with the Royal Society of Chemistry, is launching an annual essay competition on the role of the chemical sciences in sustainability.
The competition is open globally to entrants under 35 years of age. The theme for the 2023 competition is “How can the chemical sciences lead the stewardship of the Earth’s element resources?“
Beyond Benign and the Lowell Centre for Sustainable Production, Beyond Benign will co-host a webinar summarizing work over the past year by the Expert Committee on Sustainable Chemistry (ECOSChem), a group of 20 leading representatives from industry, government, academic, and non-profit organizations from across the world.
The ECOSChem group has spent the past 12 months developing an actionable definition and criteria for “sustainable chemistry” that will help inform policymakers, industry researchers, educators, and so many others in building a more sustainable future through chemistry (link to the definition and report available here). Come hear more about the definition and criteria from the project team and members of the expert committee as they highlight the importance of this work moving forward.
Beyond Benign is offering two new Challenge Awards to support the integration of green chemistry into educational settings at Minority Serving Institutions. The grant is for faculty and students to run green chemistry activities and outreach events to bring green chemistry to their campus or community.
Two awards up to $5,000 USD are available. Faculty and student members at GCC-Signing Minority Serving Institutions are encouraged to apply. You can apply for the award and submit the Green Chemistry Commitment Signing forms at the same time to be eligible.
As tractors became more sophisticated over the past two decades, the big manufacturers allowed farmers fewer options for repairs. Rather than hiring independent repair shops, farmers have increasingly had to wait for company-authorized dealers to arrive. Getting repairs could take days, often leading to lost time and high costs.
A new memorandum of understanding between the country’s largest farm equipment maker, John Deere Corp., and the American Farm Bureau Federation is now raising hopes that U.S. farmers will finally regain the right to repair more of their own equipment.
However, supporters of right-to-repair laws suspect a more sinister purpose: to slow the momentum of efforts to secure right-to-repair laws around the country.
Under the agreement, John Deere promises to give farmers and independent repair shops access to manuals, diagnostics and parts. But there’s a catch – the agreement isn’t legally binding, and, as part of the deal, the influential Farm Bureau promised not to support any federal or state right-to-repair legislation.
The right-to-repair movement has become the leading edge of a pushback against growing corporate power. Intellectual property protections, whether patents on farm equipment, crops, computers or cellphones, have become more intense in recent decades and cover more territory, giving companies more control over what farmers and other consumers can do with the products they buy.
For farmers, few examples of those corporate constraints are more frustrating than repair restrictions and patent rights that prevent them from saving seeds from their own crops for future planting.
This concentration has become especially pronounced in agriculture, with a few companies consolidating market share in numerous areas, including seeds, pesticides and machinery, as well as commodity processing and meatpacking. One study in 2014 estimated that Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, was responsible for approximately 80% of the corn and 90% of the soybeans grown in the U.S. In farm machinery, John Deere and Kubota account for about a third of the market.
Market power often translates into political power, which means that those large companies can influence regulatory oversight, legal decisions, and legislation that furthers their economic interests – including securing more expansive and stricter intellectual property policies.
Whether the product is an automobile, smartphone or seed, companies can extract more profits if they can force consumers to purchase the company’s replacement parts or use the company’s exclusive dealership to repair the product.
One of the first cases that challenged the right to repair equipment was in 1939, when a company that was reselling refurbished spark plugs was sued by the Champion Spark Plug Co. for violating its patent rights. The Supreme Court agreed that Champion’s trademark had been violated, but it allowed resale of the refurbished spark plugs if “used” or “repaired” was stamped on the product.
Although courts have often sided with the end users in right-to-repair cases, large companies have vast legal and lobbying resources to argue for stricter patent protections. Consumer advocates contend that these protections prevent people from repairing and modifying the products they rightfully purchased.
The ostensible justification for patents, whether for equipment or seeds, is that they provide an incentive for companies to invest time and money in developing products because they know that they will have exclusive rights to sell their inventions once patented.
However, some scholars claim that recent legal and legislative changes to patents are instead limiting innovation and social benefits.
The problem with seed patents
The extension of utility patents to agricultural seeds illustrates how intellectual property policies have expanded and become more restrictive.
Patents have been around since the founding of the U.S., but agricultural crops were initially considered natural processes that couldn’t be patented. That changed in 1980 with the U.S. Supreme Court decision Diamond v. Chakrabarty. The case involved genetically engineered bacteria that could break down crude oil. The court’s ruling allowed inventors to secure patents on living organisms.
Half a decade later, the U.S. Patent Office extended patents to agricultural crops generated through transgenic breeding techniques, which inserts a gene from one species into the genome of another. One prominent example is the insertion of a gene into corn and cotton that enables the plant to produce its own pesticide. In 2001, the Supreme Court included conventionally bred crops in the category eligible for patenting.
Historically, farmers would save seeds that their crops generated and replant them the following season. They could also sell those seeds to other farmers. They lost the right to sell their seeds in 1970, when Congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act. Utility patents, which grant an inventor exclusive right to produce a new or improved product, are even more restrictive.
Under a utility patent, farmers can no longer save seed for replanting on their own farms. University scientists even face restrictions on the kind of research they can perform on patented crops.
Because of the clear changes in intellectual property protections on agricultural crops over the years, researchers are able to evaluate whether those changes correlate with crop innovations – the primary justification used for patents. The short answer is that they do not.
It can be difficult to estimate how much patented crops cost farmers. For example, farmers might pay more for the seeds but save money on pesticides or labor, and they might have higher yields. If market prices for the crop are high one year, the farmer might come out ahead, but if prices are low, the farmer might lose money. Crop breeders, meanwhile, envision substantial profits.
Similarly, it is difficult to calculate the costs farmers face from not having a right to repair their machinery. A machine breakdown that takes weeks to repair during harvest time could be catastrophic.
The nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group calculated that U.S. consumers could save US$40 billion per year if they could repair electronics and appliances – about $330 per family.
The memorandum of understanding between John Deere and the Farm Bureau may be a step in the right direction, but it is not a substitute for right-to-repair legislation or the enforcement of antitrust policies.
Several major airlines have pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury to fight climate change. It’s an ambitious goal that will require an enormous ramp-up in sustainable aviation fuels, but that alone won’t be enough, our latest research shows.
The idea of jetliners running solely on fuel made from used cooking oil from restaurants or corn stalks might seem futuristic, but it’s not that far away.
Airlines arealready experimenting with sustainable aviation fuels. These include biofuels made from agriculture residues, trees, corn and used cooking oil. Other fuels are synthetic, made by combining captured carbon from the air and green hydrogen, made with renewable energy. Often, they can go straight into existing aircraft fuel tanks that normally hold fossil jet fuel.
United Airlines, which has been using a blend of used oil or waste fat and fossil fuels on some flights from Los Angeles and Amsterdam, announced in February 2023 that it had formed a partnership with biofuel companies to power 50,000 flights a year between its Chicago and Denver hubs using ethanol-based sustainable aviation fuels by 2028.
In a new study, we examined different options for aviation to reach net-zero emissions and assessed how air travel could continue without contributing to climate change.
The bottom line: Each pathway has important trade-offs and hurdles. Replacing fossil jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuels will be crucial, but the industry will still need to invest in direct-air carbon capture and storage to offset emissions that can’t be cut.
Scenarios for the future
Before the pandemic, in 2019, aviation accounted for about 3.1% of total global CO₂ emissions from fossil fuel combustion, and the number of passenger miles traveled each year was rising. If aviation emissions were a country, that would make it the sixth-largest emitter, closely following Japan.
In addition to releasing carbon emissions, burning jet fuel produces soot and water vapor, known as contrails, that contribute to warming, and these are not avoided by switching to sustainable aviation fuels.
Aviation is also one of the hardest-to-decarbonize sectors of the economy. Small electric and hydrogen-powered planes are being developed, but long-haul flights with lots of passengers are likely decades away.
We developed and analyzed nine scenarios spanning a range of projected passenger and freight demand, energy intensity and carbon intensity of aviation to explore how the industry might get to net-zero emissions by 2050.
We found that as much as 19.8 exajoules of sustainable aviation fuels could be needed for the entire sector to reach net-zero CO₂ emissions. With other efficiency improvements, that could be reduced to as little as 3 exajoules. To put that into context, 3 exajoules is almost equivalent to all biofuels produced in 2019 and far surpasses the 0.005 exajoules of bio-based jet fuel produced in 2019. An exajoule is a measure of energy.
Flying less and improving airplanes’ energy efficiency, such as using more efficient “glide” landings that allow airlines to approach the airport with engines at near idle, can help reduce the amount of fuel needed. But even in our rosiest scenarios – where demand grows at 1% per year, compared to the historical average of 4% per year, and energy efficiency improves by 4% per year rather than 1% – aviation would still need about 3 exajoules of sustainable aviation fuels.
Why offsets are still necessary
A rapid expansion in biofuel sustainable aviation fuels is easier said than done. It could require as much as 1.2 million square miles (300 million hectares) of dedicated land to grow crops to turn into fuel – roughly 19% of global cropland today.
Another challenge is cost. The global average price of fossil jet fuel is about about US$3 per gallon ($0.80 per liter), while the cost to produce bio-based jet fuels is often twice as much. The cheapest, HEFA, which uses fats, oils and greases, ranges in cost from $2.95 to $8.67 per gallon ($0.78 to $2.29 per liter), but it depends on the availability of waste oil.
Fischer-Tropsch biofuels, produced by a chemical reaction that converts carbon monoxide and hydrogen into liquid hydrocarbons, range from $3.79 to $8.71 per gallon ($1 to $2.30 per liter). And synthetic fuels are from $4.92 to $17.79 per gallon ($1.30 to $4.70 per liter).
Realistically, reaching net-zero emissions will likely also rely on carbon dioxide removal.
In a future with similar airline use as today, as much as 3.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide would have to be captured from the air and locked away – pumped underground, for example – for aviation to reach net-zero. That could cost trillions of dollars.
Some caveats apply to our findings, which could increase the need for offsets even more.
Our assessment assumes sustainable aviation fuels to be net-zero carbon emissions. However, the feedstocks for these fuels currently have life-cycle emissions, including from fertilizer, farming and transportation. The American Society for Testing Materials also currently has a maximum blend limit: up to 50% sustainable fuels can be blended into conventional jet fuel for aviation in the U.S., though airlines have been testing 100% blends in Europe.
How to overcome the final hurdles
To meet the climate goals the world has set, emissions in all sectors must decrease – including aviation.
While reductions in demand would help reduce reliance on sustainable aviation fuels, it’s more likely that more and more people will fly in the future, as more people become wealthier. Efficiency improvements will help decrease the amount of energy needed to power aviation, but it won’t eliminate it.
Scaling up sustainable aviation fuel production could decrease its costs. Quotas, such as those introduced in the European Union’s “Fit for 55” plan, subsidies and tax credits, like those in the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act signed in 2022, and a carbon tax or other price on carbon, can all help achieve this.
Additionally, given the role that capturing carbon from the atmosphere will play in achieving net-zero emissions, a more robust accounting system is needed internationally to ensure that the offsets are compensating for aviation’s non-CO₂ impacts. If these hurdles are overcome, the aviation sector could achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
A few weeks ago, Matthew Yglesias published this article on how carbon capture’s success hinges on streamlining the permitting and operation of Class VI carbon dioxide storage wells. Adding to my delight, half way through the article, he extolls the many virtues of carbon capture. Except … he wasn’t actually referring to carbon capture but direct air capture (which is considered carbon dioxide removal when paired with the subject of the article – carbon storage).
Yglesias is not alone in conflating “carbon capture” with “carbon removal”. It’s tricky to get the terminology right (I mean, direct air capture has the word “capture” in it). This recent CNN article incorrectly defines carbon capture and storage as “removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it.” I am sure we can identify many, many more examples of media outlets getting this wrong. Let’s explore the difference between these terms and why getting it right is so important.
P&G has created a pump dispenser made entirely from plastic that does not need to be disassembled in order to be recycled, including a plastic spring that the company says does not lose stiffness over time.
Direct air capture (DAC) hubs will soon begin to come online and set the US on a course to remove millions of tons of CO₂ — but the field currently lacks clear, shared markers of success. This white paper offers an original framework to assess progress and ensure these hubs empower innovators and communities.
As a graphics editor at Scientific American magazine, I use graphics—a term I use here as shorthand for illustrated explanatory diagrams and data visualizations—to help make advances in science and technology accessible, with the goal of engaging, informing, and inspiring a nonspecialist audience. My role includes developing images that both explain the latest research findings in depth and place those findings in the context of the larger research arc. The tips below include strategies that I’ve developed for creating graphics in the service of science journalism, on deadline.
Clean tech company 374Water has developed a way to leverage properties of water at high temperature and pressure to destroy poly-and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and other emerging contaminants. Supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) breaks organic material down to its elemental parts, severing carbon bonds.
You must be logged in to post a comment.