Energy efficiency in manufacturing: good news and not so good news

A newly published study from researchers from the  Environmentally Benign Manufacturing Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Cambridge, and Utrecht University reviews the opportunity for greatly increased energy efficiency in global manufacturing. The review includes production of five major materials: steel, cement, paper, plastics and aluminum. The benchmark objective was to reduce absolute material production energy by 50% while doubling production from the present to 2050. This is equivalent to a 75 per cent reduction in energy intensity by 2050 for each of the materials.

The study reviewed the energy efficiency opportunities arising from

  • widespread application of best available technology (BAT)
  • BAT to cutting-edge technologies
  • aggressive recycling, and
  • significant improvements in recycling technologies.

Of particular interest to GallonDaily are the significant energy efficiency opportunities associated with aggressive recycling and improvements in recycling technologies for most of the materials.

The research found that the best that could be obtained using these four approaches together would be of the order of 50% reduction in energy intensity, a massive saving of energy use but still short of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction. The limitations stem from thermodynamic (ie scientific) as well as practical limitations.

The study proposes that the only way we might achieve a 75% reduction in the energy efficiency of manufacturing is to apply new materials and new technologies to reduce the total amount of material used to produce manufactured goods.

The study is published in the peer reviewed mathematical, physical and engineering sciences journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. An abstract (free) and the full article (pay or subscription) is available at

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