To reduce emissions, tremendous focus has been placed on decarbonizing electric power, with remarkable progress: renewable energy costs are now competitive with electricity from fossil fuels, and they get cheaper every day. That being said, Bill Gates’ recent article series highlighted a critical point: the largest source of the greenhouse gas emissions from human activities remains manufacturing.
While only the third driver of emissions today, industrial energy energy use is projected to overtake those of the transportation sector in the next ten years. And the solutions are less clear, and require greater diversity in this industry.
America’s industrial base is vast and core to our economy, not just on the political campaign trail. 12.9 Million Americans work in manufacturing: it is a critical economic driver and source of employment, often in parts of this country that need it most. The literal foundation of our society depends on it — cement, steel, pulp and paper, chemicals: everything in your day to day.
We accept industrial products as commodities — but innovation here is incredibly exciting, and something we should talk about, more. So here’s what I wish we were talking about:
Cement (3% of Global Emissions in 2016): With over 102M Metric tons of cement produced just in 2019 in the US alone, cement is closely tied to economic development and growth. This means each year there are plenty of opportunities to build better buildings. Solidia, which lowers concrete’s carbon footprint by 70% while reducing water usage, and Sublime Systems, which focuses on reducing a cement kiln’s emissions by 50%, are working to make our growth sustainable.
Chemicals & Petrochemicals (5.8% of Global Emissions): emissions often stem from the byproduct of chemical processes — whether while making ammonia, cleaning products or our precious Clorox wipes. This is where companies like Syzygy and Alchemr shine — bringing the next generation of critical chemical and hydrogen production.
Steel and iron (7.2% of global emissions): we all know steel and iron were one of the original drivers of the industrial revolution — and their production continues to remain core to industrial infrastructure. An expensive, energy intensive process is ready for disruption — and here enters Boston Metal, transforming molten oxide electrolysis with a fraction of the energy.
Everything else: Much less discussed, but a significant contributor is the manufacturing of “everything else.” Chemical separations to make raw materials account for 12% of US energy consumption. Of that, separations in the pulp & paper industry account for 2.4% of US energy consumption and 1% of global energy consumption (0.6% of US Emissions). This is 200x the energy use of electric vehicles. Via Separations (the company I work for) is focused on using its platform to eliminate 90% of the energy used in the separation step of manufacturing with low-energy filtration systems.
We know there’s no silver bullet to climate change, but the more people working on the various, complex facets of our installed industrial infrastructure, the more we all win. Our industrial infrastructure is critical to the functioning of our society and economy — let’s work together to build upon it. We need your talent, your ideas and your capital — let’s make industrial decarbonization the next wave of cleantech.