Sustainability Symposium Brings Industry and Academia Together to Address Challenges and Opportunities of Environmental Innovation

Louisiana has the distinction of being home to one of the country’s most unique eco-systems as well as the largest concentration of crude oil refineries, natural gas processing plants, and petrochemical production facilities in the western hemisphere. Reconciling environmental concerns with the needs of the state’s manufacturing sector can be daunting. Louisiana State University’s College of Engineering hosted industry leaders from top chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing firms to address some of these challenges at its Sustainability in the Chemical Industry symposium.

Representatives from BASF, Albemarle Corporation and GlaxoSmithKline joined researchers from LSU, the Green Chemistry Institute of the American Chemical Society, and the Brook Byer Institute at the Georgia Institute of Technology to discuss how many companies in the traditional chemical industry, as well as the nascent bio-manufacturing sector have adopted sustainability as a central component of their long-term strategic plans.

“Sustainability is crucial to the long term success of Louisiana both economically and environmentally,” said Michael Benton, associate professor, LSU Cain Department of Chemical Engineering. “Maximizing sustainability is a complex problem that requires collaboration between a diverse group of people. This symposium provided an excellent platform for members of industry and academia to explore novel ways to address these grand challenges.”

BASF, a chemical manufacturing company and industry leader in sustainable development for well over 20 years, reaffirmed its commitment to sustainability by pledging one million dollars for the creation of a sustainable living lab at Patrick F. Taylor Hall in the College of Engineering’s $110 million renovated facility. The lab will equip researchers from across all disciplines to develop sustainable products and technologies, and help foster a culture of environmental stewardship at the College and beyond.

“At BASF, we are developing a culture around sustainability,” said Bruce Uhlman, team leader, Applied Sustainability, who performs eco-efficiency studies at the company. "We want every employee to understand clearly how their actions and decisions are contributing to a more sustainable future."

While being environmentally responsible is important, companies must also prioritize profitability if bio-manufacturing is to become the industry norm. Uhlman stressed the importance of not only identifying opportunities to capitalize on environmentally friendly practices, but also educating BASF’s vast network of partners about the benefits of sustainable manufacturing.

“We want to holistically quantify how sustainability creates efficiencies throughout our value chain,” said Uhlman, “and we are developing tools and metrics for our partners to measure them as well as effectively communicate them.”

Dr. Dave Clary, chief technology officer and vice president, Performance Chemicals Research and Technology at Albemarle, echoed Uhlman’s comments.

“The best way to make a program truly sustainable is to build it in such a way that it can be profitable,” said Clary.

Clary, an LSU College of Engineering alumnus, highlighted the role of public demand for eco-friendly products as a driving force for Albemarle’s move to sustainability. Market demand, he said, not only makes new, environmentally-sustainable chemical manufacturing processes and chemical products possible, but also places their development at the center of Albemarle’s corporate strategy.

“Society makes its expectations clear,” said Clary, “and we have a responsibility to strive to meet those expectations. Sustainability and green chemistry help us meet some of those expectations.”

The challenges of finding a balance between corporate environmental stewardship and responsible business practices are many. In response, Albemarle, BASF and their peers in the chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing sector are aggressively researching and developing sustainable manufacturing technologies and materials to meet market demand for environmentally friendly products.

“BASF is building a total balance sheet with capital, environmental, and social concerns for a more sustainable future,” proclaimed BASF’s Uhlman.

The symposium took place at LSU’s School of the Coast and Environment. The location was both a stark reminder of the importance of Louisiana’s coastal resources to the state, and a nod to the critical role of scientists and engineers in the proliferation of bio-manufacturing. As government, industry and academia form strategic partnerships to ensure the continued growth of sustainable manufacturing, Uhlman emphasized the need for education across all sectors.

“We try to, as representatives of the chemical industry,” said Uhlman, “ensure that policy is science-based.”

Addressing research collaboration, LSU’s College of Engineering will continue to create opportunities for education through events like the sustainability symposium. More important, the College is training bio-manufacturing’s future leaders to be both innovative engineers and stewards of their environment.