If you ask a child to draw a factory, you’ll most likely see a picture of huge chimneys pouring out dark smoke. Adults might come up with associations like explosions, barren industrial estates, and wasted energy and raw materials. Chemical plants, with their endless pipes and weird smells, have a particularly bad name when it comes to damaging our soil and atmosphere. Chemistry today is—we have to admit—far from ideal. Many of the industry’s perceived sins relate directly to its gigantic size. You only have to look at our power stations or the factories that produce our plastics: They’re growing bigger all the time. They often need huge cooling installations to get rid of all the excess heat. This is just another way of saying that they use far too much energy. Bigger plants bring bigger dangers. Things can go very badly in a large installation. The repercussions of an accident can be dramatic, which is why safety is such a key feature when designing them. But that imposes restrictions on the installation’s operations. It often means that we have to operate the processes far from the optimum. Operators need to play it safe at the expense of additional material and energy consumption. Truckloads of by-products must be removed—often in such vast quantities that there’s hardly any useful purpose they can serve. In classic refining techniques, for instance, it’s hard to adjust the ratio between light and heavy oil products. If you need a lot of gasoline, you end up with an excess of fuel oil, or vice versa. Increased scale has long been the chemical industry’s watchword and for compelling technical and financial reasons. A large vessel, for instance, is easier to insulate than a small one. There are other arguments in favor of large scale: Investment costs, personnel levels, maintenance, administrative costs, and land use have all traditionally been lower per unit of product in a big plant. Until recently, it’s always been an issue of bigger meaning more efficient and cheaper. Nowadays, however, the classic approach is incresingly unnecessary.
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