Getting a reaction? Demand reduction in the chemicals sector

chemicals sector

Geoff Hammond describes the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products’ evaluation of energy demand reduction and decarbonisation potential in the chemicals sector.

Energy consumption in the chemicals sector

Overall, the chemicals sector gives rise to the UK’s highest industrial energy consumption; mainly due to low temperature heat processes (30%), electrical motors (19%), drying/separation processes (16%), and high temperature heat processes (11%). It accounts for some 19% of GHG emissions from UK industry – the second largest sector after steel.

This strategically important sector for the UK has been studied by CIE-MAP researchers at the University of Bath (Geoff Hammond, Jonathan Norman and Paul Griffin).

The chemicals sector

The chemicals sector is made up of a complex collection of diverse and interacting sub-sectors covering a wide range of raw materials, processes and products. Cleaning fluids, composites, dyes, paints, pharmaceuticals and plastics, for example, all come under the umbrella of the chemicals sector.

Physical outputs are moved around on an international scale within or between major companies that are truly multi-national. The industry is highly focused on private research and development and protective of information, meaning that data availability is particularly poor.

The sector takes full advantage of modern developments in electronic and digital technology, such as for the automatic control of chemical process plants and automation in the use of analytical instruments.

Range and scale within chemicals sector

The scale of operation of chemical firms ranges from quite small plants (of a few tonnes per year) in the fine chemicals area, where high purity is required, to giant ones in the petrochemical sector.

Batch production is employed by SMEs where small quantities of chemicals (up to around 100 tonnes per annum) are required. In contrast, continuous plants are typically used in cases where a single output, or related group of products, are demanded with plants of several thousands to millions of tonnes per year.

Intermediates are often produced which are converted via downstream processing into a wide range of products, such as benzene, toluene and xylenes (BTX), ethylene, phenol, and PVC from petrochemical refineries or via ammonia plants.

The research

The researchers employed a Pareto-like approach in order to evaluate the opportunities and challenges of industrial energy demand reduction and decarbonisation in the chemicals industry (see diagram).

Sub-sectors that use a large amount of energy were prioritised via bottom-up studies, and emissions from those that could not easily be treated in this way were estimated via ‘cross-cutting’ technologies.

The improvement potential of various technological interventions were identified, and currently-available best practice technologies were found to give the potential for further, short-term energy and CO2 emissions savings in chemicals processing.

Roadmaps to 2050

The prospects for the commercial exploitation of innovative technologies by the mid-21st century are far more speculative. A set of industrial decarbonisation ‘technology roadmaps’ up to 2050 were also developed, based on various alternative scenarios.

These scenarios illustrated possible low-carbon transition pathways that represent future projections which match short-term (say out to 2035) and long-term (2050) targets with specific technological solutions so as to meet the key energy and carbon saving goals.

The roadmaps help identify the steps needed to be taken by industrialists, policy makers and other stakeholders in order to ensure the emissions reduction from the UK chemicals industry. The attainment of significant falls in carbon emissions over the period to mid-Century will depend critically on the adoption of a small number of key technologies [e.g., carbon capture and storage (CCS), energy efficiency techniques, and bioenergy], alongside a decarbonisation of the electricity supply.


For more details of the research and its findings see: Griffin, P.W., G.P. Hammond and J.B. Norman, 2017. ‘Industrial energy use and carbon emissions reduction in the chemicals sector: A UK perspective’, Applied Energy: available online 12th August.

Geoff Hammond is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath and a co-Director of the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products (CIE-MAP)


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