Industry is among the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the U.S., producing an estimated 24 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. While great progress has been made – greenhouse gas emissions from industry, including electricity generation, have declined by 22 percent since 1990 – in many cases, alternative production processes are not cost competitive with those based on conventional production technology.
Reducing emissions across the industrial sector has been a foundational strategy since the Manufacturing USA network was founded in 2014. It is crucial for U.S. manufacturers to confront the climate crisis but also to create jobs for current and next generation workers, decrease their energy costs, and increase America’s global competitiveness. The Biden Administration’s set of economy-wide goals cites reducing industrial emission as key to creating an equitable clean energy future.
The Manufacturing USA network has grown to include 16 manufacturing innovation institutes, which are funded through the departments of Commerce, Defense and Energy and from private sector industry members. Institutes are working with research entities and private sector companies to develop processes to reduce industrial emissions and lower barriers so that more manufacturers can adopt these breakthroughs. While every institute’s projects may contribute to energy efficiency and sustainability, here is a look at some of the many initiatives related to emissions-intensive industrial processes.
The Roadmap to Reducing Direct and Indirect Emissions
Industrial emissions fall into two categories – direct and indirect. Most direct emissions come from the consumption of fossil fuels for energy, according to the EPA. About one third comes from the use of natural gas and petroleum systems, such as petroleum products used to make plastics, and chemical reactions during the production of chemicals, metals, and cement. Indirect emissions occur off-site but are associated with the facility's use of electricity, which can be substantial for machinery.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) “Industrial Decarbonization Roadmap” identifies four key pathways to reduce industrial emissions. The roadmap presents an agenda for the manufacturing sector to work together across the spectrum of technology readiness. The roadmap’s four pillars are:
- Energy efficiency: System optimization, improvement of existing processes and introduction of new materials
- Industrial electrification: Examples include low-carbon electricity from grid and onsite renewable generation sources
- Low-carbon fuels, feedstocks, and energy sources: Hydrogen and advanced biofuels
- Carbon capture, utilization and storage: Capturing CO2 from factory emissions and utilizing it for value added production or geological sequestration
There are No Easy Substitutes for Emissions-Intensive Processes
While a shift to zero-carbon energy sources, such as solar or wind-powered electricity, could lower CO2 emissions in the power sector, there are no easy substitutes for emissions-intensive industrial processes. Two key characteristics needed to successfully reduce industrial emissions are solutions that must have positive economic value and are not overly complex to implement. Many of the new innovations, such as green hydrogen and carbon capture, can be up to five times the cost of current processes.
Manufacturers have also been promised many technological advances over the years that did not materialize, so they are cautious in adopting new approaches. However, as CESMII CEO, John Dyck, frequently points out, cost and complexity reduction happens via innovation over time; you increase adoption by increasing innovation efforts.
Efforts are Widespread to Conserve Water, Electricity
In addition to the foundational process technologies directly related to oil, gas, and chemicals, many institute projects are about enabling manufacturers to save energy and water without having to make large investments in equipment. For example:
CESMII is focused on system optimization and smart manufacturing software that allows older machines to be part of the Industry 4.0 connectivity, which saves considerable energy. Lack of standardization in manufacturing is a big challenge; CESMII is investing in information models that reduce the necessity of domain expertise, which should increase adoption.
An MxD project team developed a series of “Internet of Things” Retrofit Kits that allow manufacturers to exchange data with their legacy machines using an open architecture and standards in a low-cost and easily configurable manner. The retrofit kits help reduce energy consumption by enabling technology to do things such as minimize vibrations and machine movement, and add smart motor control systems that adjust torque and speed in real time.
America Makes and NextFlex are among the institutes using innovative approaches to conserve material and reduce waste and water usage.
NextFlex has had great success improving on printed circuit boards (PCB) for microelectronics, which have mostly been using the same approach for 40 years. NextFlex has developed an additive process for PCBs that replaces harmful chemical processing in traditional wet etching board and assembly manufacturing. As an example, the new approach reduces water and waste by a factor of 5X to 8X. Nextflex’s additive process also is faster because it has fewer steps as raw materials are being printed, not etched away.
RAPID Helps Chemicals Company Solve a Legacy Issue
Traditional chemical engineering processes rely on reactions, separations and heat exchange. It has been especially challenging for manufacturers with large-scale, emissions-intensive, established processes to invest in technology that often last decades.
The RAPID institute is focused on breakthrough process intensification technologies involving oil and gas, pulp and paper, and various domestic chemical manufacturers.
Researchers have developed new process intensification (PI) technologies, such as involving microwave heating and plasma systems, that allow for chemical transformation to happen at milder conditions. They have found new ways of separating materials. PI has become a transformative engineering approach that helps businesses run chemical and other engineering processes faster, cleaner and with reduced cost.
Lubrizol is a global company that provides specialty chemicals for transportation, industrial and consumer markets, such as additives for engine oils and industrial lubricants. They make performance polymers that can thicken a fluid to the optimal viscosity for production needs. They worked with RAPID and a team at the University of Pittsburgh to convert one of their key legacy processes for chemical dispersants from batch to continuous and incorporate the principles of modular process intensification.
Batch production is often much more expensive than continuous processing as it includes starts and stops, heating and cooling of materials, and cleaning of large vessels. It also involves the purging of excess chemicals, gasses, or byproducts, usually with nitrogen, that produces an output to be incinerated, burned as a flare, or otherwise safely treated.
The project team succeeded in building a continuous process production module about the size of a shipping container. They were able to make a better quality product while:
- Reducing capital by about 65 percent: A batch plant costs about $3.5 million to $5 million and will take about 36 months to construct and start up. The modular continuous process production unit was built in six months for about 35 percent of the cost of the comparable legacy facility. It also reduced the footprint from more than 10,000 square feet to about 200 square feet and the fabrication and deployment time by a factor of six.
- Reducing operating costs by about 60 percent: The continuous process saved on electricity, water, steam consumption, and other associated utilities.
- Eliminating all of the emissions and reducing atmospheric heat loss by a factor of 10: Using pipes to move materials continuously through production instead of long treatment time in vessels eliminated the accumulation of gasses, reduced energy consumption (losses from hot surfaces), reduced loss of material (as waste), and eliminated the cleaning of vessels between batches.
The innovation also allowed the company to put units at or close to the location of a raw material source or closer to the customer, which minimized unnecessary transportation expenses and time, among many other benefits. The use of innovative modular design will greatly reduce barriers of entry for new manufacturing and lead to competitive improvement of the U.S. chemical processing industry. The oil industry, for example, could benefit from smaller onsite production modules instead of building large capital intensive plants or expensive pipelines with lengthy permitting and construction times.
Predictive Modeling Reduces Energy Consumption in Cement Production
Cement is a key component for concrete, the most consumed composite material in the global construction industry. The cement industry is the third most energy intensive among industrial processes, with about 90% of that product energy and CO2 coming from kilns that transform feed into clinker minerals.
CESMII worked with the University of Louisville and ARGOS USA to provide a more energy-efficient clinker production process with better quality control. The project used Smart Manufacturing technologies – including predictive process models, data analytics, sensors, and machine learning – to characterize the product stream in the kiln.
Sensors monitor temperatures at critical positions in the kiln. Realtime data from the kiln was used to develop a machine learning model, which was combined with a physics-based model to predict production quality and energy use. The sensing and modeling solutions were integrated into a real-time control solution to optimize firing temperatures for the kiln, in order to reduce energy consumption.
The solution was validated on the lab scale kiln and demonstrated at the production facility at ARGOS. The project has demonstrated a 15% reduction in energy usage in production kilns. Proliferating these technologies throughout the cement industry has a potential to significantly impact greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to industrial decarbonization.
Pharmaceutical Manufacturing also Looks to Process Intensification
The NIIMBL institute has convened the leading pharmaceutical manufacturers to develop a plan to achieve carbon-neutral bioprocessing within 10 years. Much like the chemical industry, they also are working through process intensification and modular production with a continuous process as opposed to batch production.
NIIMBL has three sustainability working groups:
- Process intensification: more efficient conversion of raw materials into products while minimizing resource usage
- Plastics: addressing single-use packaging
- Life cycle assessment: identifying potential environmental impacts within the pharmaceutical value chain
The pharmaceutical manufacturing sector has had success in using continuous processes, modular production and single-use units for small molecule products such as pills. NIIMBL teams are leading the industry in mapping the path forward to decrease the carbon footprint of manufacturing for biologics – therapeutic products that are made from living cells. NIIMBL’s process intensification efforts are about reducing complexity and shrinking facility footprints to get more product using less water, energy, and costly raw materials while shortening timeframes needed to bring products to market. Ultimately, NIIMBL’s work will ensure that sustainability is a key criterion for the industry in design of processes and facilities.
U.S. Bioindustrial Manufacturing is Breaking New Ground
BioMADE is working on industrial processes. The institute is helping to build a sustainable, domestic end-to-end bioindustrial manufacturing ecosystem.
BioMADE member Solugen has produced the world’s first carbon-negative molecule factory, which has no air emissions or wastewater emissions. Solugen uses feedstocks, such as sugars, air, and carbon dioxide, to make chemicals with no emissions – and without the dangerous conditions and other pollutants that usually accompany chemical manufacturing.
Its Bioforge™ platform uses proprietary engineered enzymes instead of traditional thermochemical or fermentation manufacturing processes. It nets one ton of product for every one ton of feedstock. Feedstock yield losses are the most expensive part of a traditional thermochemical or fermentation manufacturing process. Solugen’s facility in Houston is powered by renewable wind energy and has no wastewater discharge or air emissions.
Other BioMADE members’ successful outcomes include:
- LanzaTech’s carbon recycling technology uses bacteria to convert pollution into fuels and chemicals.
- Geno has developed a plant-based chemical process that makes consumer items, such as leggings and palm oils, with 90 percent less CO2 output compared to coal-based alternatives.
- Cemvita Factory’s carbon utilization platform uses CO2 as the feedstock to produce chemical intermediates and polymers. For some manufacturers, this eliminates emissions while creating a new revenue stream.
REMADE Charts New Course With Approach to Materials, Circular Economy
The REMADE institute’s mission is to transition manufacturing from a “take-make-dispose” linear economy to a “make-use-reuse-remanufacture-recycle” circular economy. Their work in achieving sustainable manufacturing involves the most energy-intensive materials in areas such as plastics recycling, metals recycling, e-waste recovery, and more.
REMADE’s projects range from focusing on design – in which 80 percent of a product’s life cycle costs and environmental footprint is determined – to reducing waste generation in the manufacturing process and making it easier to extract materials for reuse. REMADE projects its annual impacts of projects as:
- Saving 1.2 quads of energy per year, the equivalent of conserving 206 million barrels of oil annually.
- Reducing 67.2 million tonnes per year of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of eliminating annual emissions of 13.1 million cars.
- Supporting U.S. economic growth by generating up to $22 billion per year in new opportunities.
One current project focuses on developing the first commercially scalable process to recycle the crosslinked EVA scrap generated by shoe midsole manufacturers. During production, manufacturers mold ethyl-vinyl-acetate (EVA), which forms permanent crosslinks in the EVA foam and produces midsoles that provide the desired cushioning. Unfortunately, the molding process generates up to 30 percent scrap and the permanent crosslinks inhibit subsequent melt processing, significantly limiting the recyclability of crosslinked EVA scrap.
Project stakeholders, which include Braskem USA, Case Western Reserve University and Allbirds, seek to convert cross-linked EVA footwear industrial scrap so that it can be re-incorporated into the manufacturing process. Once developed, this process will allow manufacturers to increase their use of EVA scrap during shoe midsole manufacturing from 15 percent to 30 percent.
A Fresh Perspective on Advanced Manufacturing
Institutes’ technology innovations are helping to reduce industrial emissions, which will strengthen the competitive position of U.S. manufacturing companies, provide pathways to Americans seeking rewarding, living-wage jobs, and contribute to stronger local, regional, and national communities.
In 2021, the institutes collectively worked with over 2,300 member organizations to collaborate on more than 700 major technology and workforce research and development projects and engaged over 90,000 people in advanced manufacturing training. State, industry, and federal funds contributed $480 million to these activities.
To learn about the many ways in which institutes help accelerate technology adoption to improve American manufacturing’s global competitiveness, visit the Institutes page.