How digitalisation is aiding chemicals companies on their journey to a circular economy

Throughout the asset-intensive industries, sustainability remains a hot topic for manufacturers, customers and investors alike, reports Dr Paige Marie Morse, Industry Director, Aspen Technology

The drive to become more sustainable is now leading debates around the boardroom tables of leading chemicals companies as these organisations look to invest in more environmentally friendly energy sources and use digitalisation to deliver more sustainable long-term operations ... all while delivering enhanced profitability.

After all, to remain competitive and relevant in the marketplace of tomorrow, chemicals companies need to retain focus on growing the “triple bottom line,” balancing the impact of their operations on people, planet and profits.

Technology market research firm, ARC Advisory Group, recently confirmed that most global chemical companies have sustainability initiatives in place and they view digital technologies as critical to progressing their work, although many are struggling to adequately resource their efforts.

The advent of COVID-19 has accelerated this process. The collective health of communities and our planet, and the interlinked nature of climate, ecology and social crises, have all become clearer in 2020 and 2021.

Corporate resilience and long-term survival are common discussions these days, in boardrooms and investor events (albeit virtually at least for the foreseeable future). Whatever the future may hold for the chemicals industry, we know that sustainability is here to stay.

When it comes to sustainability, chemicals businesses face two main challenges.

First, they need to think about how to deliver short-term efficiency improvements to reduce carbon emissions, water use and waste production.

Second, they must decide how to deliver on longer-term goals to develop new energy sources and products for the circular economy, based on the principles of eliminating emissions and waste, and regenerating resources.

The latter objective exacts particular demands for the chemicals industry. The targets are ambitious and businesses have a long way to go.

In its recent report, "Winning in a Circular Economy," Accenture finds that as of 2018, of the 140 million tons per annum of chemical products consumed in EU countries, only 9 million tons per annum becomes available in recyclable and typically fragmented waste streams.

The report also explains that almost 70% of the material consumed is neither accessible for recovery nor recycle, as the chemicals are either dispersed in the environment or unable to be separated from the final product.

Finding a positive way forward

Yet, help is at hand. There is a growing understanding that innovation strategies are fundamental for chemical companies to progress toward circular economy goals, and digital technologies are critical to accelerating this effort.

Innovative supply chain solutions are already enabling companies to better integrate post-consumer materials into their value chains, while advanced process control technologies are enabling lower energy use and waste generation in production processes.

For longer-term product and process development, digital simulations help researchers to quickly screen a variety of alternatives to select the most viable and cost-effective option, whether for new polymer production, chemical recycling processes or the integration of biobased raw materials, while also comparing the energy demand and CO2 emissions for each alternative.

And these simulations are even more accurate and accessible using a hybrid modelling approach, which combines artificial intelligence (AI) with first-principle model design and domain expertise.

Engineers can now build enriched process models faster using machine learning to leverage simulation or plant data, integrating application knowledge including first principles and engineering constraints, without requiring deep process or AI expertise.

The value and importance of using AI to speed progress toward circular economy goals is highlighted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works to develop capabilities and policies to drive circular economy progress worldwide.

AI is particularly valuable in terms of designing circular products, enabling new business models and optimising existing infrastructure.

Ambitious global climate goals will require faster solutions and co-ordinated activities to ensure progress.

In its report, Artificial Intelligence and the Circular Economy, written in collaboration with Google, with research and analytical support provided by McKinsey & Company, the foundation suggests that: “AI technologies can be applied to three key aspects of a circular economy: design circular products, components and materials, operate circular business models and optimise infrastructure to ensure circular flows of products and materials.”

And along the way, it is important that companies can chart and report on their progress toward sustainability objectives.

The visibility and workflow connection enabled by digital solutions helps employees see the impact of their efforts and makes it possible for companies to carefully chart and report on their progress to stakeholders, regulators and local communities.

Addressing the challenge of the circular economy means looking at ways of redesigning processes and products to eliminate waste and emissions. New solutions need to look at ways of helping chemicals manufacturers to change the ways they do innovation.

By supporting digitalisation and providing tools that help chemicals companies solve new challenges — from improving recycling efficiencies to redesigning products and processes, and making better use of renewable energy for operations — these providers will help shape the future of the circular economy for their customers.

In particular, we are today seeing tools for simulation, process modelling and supply chain planning and management being widely used by chemicals companies as they continue their journey to the circular economy and enhanced sustainability as a whole.

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