Home » Green Chemistry: The Tug o’ War Between Headwinds and Tailwinds
A vast array of both consumer and industrial products, from plastics to fuels; from paints and coatings to lubricants; from personal care products to household, industrial and institutional cleaners (“HI&I”), and many others, have historically been based on starting materials that are derived from fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas, shale oil, oil sands, bitumen, coal, etc. Over the past couple of decades, there has been a lot of discussion, R&D, marketing and sales efforts aimed at converting as many products that are based upon fossil fuel-derived specialty chemicals to “green” (biosourced) analogs, as possible. The drivers for this movement are varied, but some of the more important considerations include the sustainable nature of bio-sourced materials vis-à-vis finite fossil fuels; potentially lower carbon footprints of certain bio-sourced materials; and consumer “pull” for materials that are low-odor, with benign label warnings. The quest is most urgently felt in the areas of plastics, fuels, and paints and coatings, where varying degrees of progress have been made developing products derived from starting components that are grown and harvested, such as corn, soybeans and perennial grasses. This makes eminently good sense, because fossil-derived, and especially petroleum-based, chemistries will eventually require alternatives - untapped oil reserves are finite, whereas crops are renewable.
At least for now, however, the world seems to find new oil reserves on a routine basis, and - as the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically reduced demand for oil - there is currently an overabundance of oil, which has had a dramatic effect on its price. Green chemistry development continues, but to what degree does it affect the various segments of the coatings industry? These chemistries from novel, non-petroleum sources are often more expensive than their petroleum-based analogs. With prolonged low crude oil prices, can these new chemistries make a sufficiently sizable entrée into the various paint and coatings segments and regional markets for them to acquire and maintain a solid, commercially viable foothold? COVID-19 and its effect on demand for oil, coupled with the pre-COVID oversupply of oil and ongoing food supply disruptions, are economic forces that will put a damper on significant near-term growth in certain segments of petrochemical-sourced, as well as bio-sourced, paints and coatings. Nonetheless, the price and availability of crude oil are only two, albeit extremely important, factors in determining how the global and regional paint and coatings industry will perform at any given time.