“Even to optimize energy production, you will always need plastic”

Raymond Michels is a researcher at the CNRS and the University of Lorraine, specializing in the geochemistry of hydrocarbons.

Why does chemistry need oil?

Quite simply because it is a unique material on Earth, for its energy content, but also for its richness in molecules and for their diversity. As oil derives from living matter [phytoplanctons], the process of organic synthesis has already gathered carbon and hydrogen into tens of thousands of molecules that you can harness in some way. This is also why, in my opinion, burning oil as simple energy is heresy!

Can chemistry do without petroleum, whose resources are not infinite?

Yes, but it would take an enormous amount of energy to synthesize an organic molecule from an abundant source of carbon or hydrogen, ie carbon dioxide and water. To sum up, if you want to have an organic molecule on hand, either you take it from living organisms, or you take it from oil, which is a derivative of living organisms.

As with energy, do the chemical alternatives to oil imply a potential conflict of uses?

The majority of renewable energy in France remains wood, so a very large quantity would be needed to replace oil today in the field of energy. Very soon, we would have no more forests. In chemistry, you can make all the chemical precursors from living things, but you would need a whole set of processing steps. Manufacturing all chemical precursors from living organisms could enter into direct competition with agricultural production. Unless you imagine marine farms with seaweed farms in phenomenal quantities.

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Beyond emissions into the atmosphere, inherent in the chemical industry, what is the environmental risk of oil as a material?

The main problem of global warming is the emission of carbon dioxide [CO2], which is derived from fossil fuels. If we no longer use petroleum as an energy source, the fraction of petroleum used in the field of chemistry will not take part in combustion. In my opinion, even if we stop using oil as a source of energy, we will continue to exploit its deposits for the chemical industry.

At least, as long as these resources are available…

The energy conversion of our industrial system will require polymer, probably the most sophisticated material today. If you want to make an electric car, it is unlikely that its body will be made of steel, it will surely be polymer. It is a very high-tech material, light, resistant, with enormous advantages over all that is metallic. Look around you: even to optimize your energy production, you will need plastic, since you need calculators, computers…