Getting ready for innovation’s third era

A look back at the chemical industry in innovation terms clearly shows that there have been two significant eras of development. The first, which dates back to the early 1800s, involved the development of products such as paints or soaps that could be derived from natural oils and minerals. The second phase, which began in the early part of the 20th century, centered on the development of products from the petrochemical industry, such as synthetic plastics and fibers.

However, we can see that the second era has run its course – the pace of innovation is slowing and people are becoming increasingly concerned about the use of fossil fuel resources and the disposal of products. We are now poised at the beginning of a third era – that of “circular chemistry” involving the increased use of renewable energy and raw materials and the manufacture of products that are more sustainable so that we reduce the impact of our activities on the planet.

The three eras of innovation

This means that as an industry we have to refocus our innovation activities. We can only work on new products or processes if they have an improved sustainability profile. And we have to become more open and collaborative in our approach – no one company can be expected to have all the answers, so we have to broaden our scope and find ways of working with universities, start-up firms, and other third parties to help.

At AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, we have already experienced great success with collaborative innovation through our innovation challenge, Imagine Chemistry. I was thrilled to be able  to present awards to 10 winners at the finals of our 2018 event in Gothenburg, covering technologies that range from bio-based chemical production routes to technologies to improve water treatment. All of the winners have the potential to make significant contributions in our journey to more circular, sustainable industry.

You can also see the fundamental role that sustainability plays in our process innovation efforts. We recently broke ground for a plant in Sweden to demonstrate a revolutionary and more sustainable process technology platform for producing ethylene amines and their derivatives from ethylene oxide. It will significantly reduce raw material consumption and substantially improve cost and environmental performance compared with existing processes.

We have clearly demonstrated success over many years in the development of more sustainable products. What we call Eco Premium Solutions – products that have a significant, measurable sustainability benefit over the competition – now account for 19% of our sales. And don’t forget that’s a moving target – as the competition catches up, some products will lose their Eco Premium status. This means that we have to keep working harder to keep one step ahead.

To ensure that we can keep doing that we are focusing on two key elements: the first is streamlining our innovation function, ensuring that we have more agile project management and that we work on applying best practices and enhancing that through continuous improvement. The second is focusing our efforts around three key pillars that reflect the shift to this new era: green electrochemistry, biomass-to-chemicals, and resource-efficient polymer technologies.

We are already a leader in electrochemistry and we are looking to participate in the emerging economy for hydrogen obtained using renewable electricity; already around 50% of our energy use is renewable. Green hydrogen could be an important route to fuels and chemicals that does not involve generation of CO2 and we are involved in a number of partnerships in this area including Gasunie in the Netherlands, and a consortium that includes the Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE).

We are also a leader in biomass-to-chemicals; we have decades of experience here, and around 15% of our total sales volume is from bio-derived materials including fatty acid-based polymer surfactants and a portfolio of cellulosic products. We are now working on some pioneering initiatives to further expand in this area, including a major waste-to-chemicals project in the Netherlands, and even a vision for a CO2-free, circular economy by 2050. In polymer technology we are capitalizing on our proven capabilities to drive more sustainable production and help improve product performance and recyclability.

Given the essential nature of its products and its widespread influence, the chemical industry has the power to make a major impact on the wellbeing of our planet. At AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, we aim to do our part by working with our customers and external partners as we embark on this new era of innovation to develop the solutions we need to ensure a sustainable future.