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It’s game on for net-zero

Nov. 16, 2022
Process control technology is equipped and ready to win the sustainability game.

As I darted around several sessions at this year’s Emerson Exchange in Grapevine, Texas, one thing became increasingly clear: you, the process control engineer, are in the starting lineup when it comes to tackling the world’s net-zero goals. So, buckle up your chinstrap and tighten your laces, because we’re well past the opening drive of the game when it comes to industrial sustainability efforts.

“We need to start to turn pledges into progress,” said Mike Train, Emerson’s chief sustainability officer, while opening a media briefing at the event and discussing how the digital transformation is a central cog to the game plan when working to curb carbon emissions from industrial operations.

Oh boy, was he spot on with his assessment? While many 2030 or 2050 (name your date) net-zero goals set forth by countries and companies around the globe have been pledged and, in many cases, even put into play, the results thus far have been field goal handshakes rather than touchdown celebration dances. So, how can industry let loose and move the ball downfield, so to speak? Luckily, the answer already has a helmet on and ready to go.

Process control.

Throughout the week in Grapevine, I sat through multiple roundtable discussions and case study presentations describing the role of digitalization in turning emission-excessive operations, such as those in energy production, into carbon-reducing processes. Behind each one, a common player emerged. From a plastics recycling to carbon capture to, yes, even beer brewing, experts representing many multifaceted industries showed examples where the star quarterback of their business’ sustainability efforts where the automated control system.

Time after time, a common refrain heard was that these companies are on a quest to institute condition-based monitoring, maintenance and operations. It serves as the catalyst for streamlining everything from worker productivity to emissions management. Wireless technology serves as control room’s running back in these efforts, toting digital information around plants, even plant-to-plant in many cases. Facilities are rapidly becoming digitized and the possibilities for making operations more sustainable are following suit. One thing is apparent, digitalized operations make for more quickly scalable businesses, and the path to building those operations comes via technology investment.

“We are on a journey to operational excellence via automation. We want our plants to run safer, greener, longer and faster,” Roman Wolff, vice president of engineering at Origin Material said during the same session. Origin Materials seeks to turn carbon found in biomass into useful materials “We believe that digital automation is a strategic lever for growth, and we want to establish a solid digital foundation.”

Likewise, Stefan Lepecki, CEO of Mexico-based petrochemical company, Braskem Idesa, agreed that digital technology is the key to sustainability success, but added that there’s more to any digital transformation than meets the eye. “I reinforce that is it more than technology. To make sustainability such a priority takes a culture,” he said.

Ah, there’s the rub. In keeping with our football metaphors here, one way to build a more prolific offense and push the ball (sustainable operations) downfield in bigger chucks of yardage is an investment in talent, perhaps better draft choices and/or free agents (digital technologies) as well as a winning culture. Any football coach knows a bad locker room environment can ruin even the best laid game plan.

While many people tend to focus on the politics of net-zero, particularly in the West where climate change action is prominent on political advertisements, process engineers have a much more productive role to play managing carbon emissions versus politicians or even company executives. That’s because we’re not going to make a difference in climate change based on promises, but on action, as Emerson’s Train pointed out. The action needed is investment in digital technology and expertise.

"It’s a process of change,” said Train, adding that automation expertise stands ready to play a central role in sustainable transformation across multiple industries. 

About the Author

Len Vermillion | Editor in Chief

Len Vermillion is editor-in-chief of Control.