FEATURES

Chemical innovation – it’s cooler than you think

By Peter Nieuwenhuizen, Chief Technology Officer – Specialty Chemicals at AkzoNobel

Chemical innovation is entering a new era of importance with the global focus on sustainability, whether that means developing bio-based raw materials instead of those based on fossil fuels or developing completely new products that are more sustainable.

A recent survey of chemists by Elsevier’s Reaxys unit came up with a result that I found surprising – nearly 80% thought that people are drawn towards other scientific fields with more “newsworthy” research. But if it seems that chemistry is not as innovative as other fields, I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth, certainly not from my viewpoint at AkzoNobel’s Specialty Chemical business.

In fact, chemical innovation is entering a new era of importance with the global focus on sustainability, whether that means developing bio-based raw materials instead of those based on fossil fuels or developing completely new products that are more sustainable. With our role as the industry of industries – providing the raw materials for the supply chains of almost every product – working in this area of research is not only cool; it’s crucial to ensuring that we can move towards a truly circular economy.

At AkzoNobel, we believe that breakthrough solutions require collaboration across the value chain, and we continue to forge partnerships through a model of open innovation. We have multiple agreements in place to expand innovations for bio-based chemicals, including a cooperation with Photanol for chemicals from photosynthesis; with Itaconix for bio-based polymers; with Royal Cosun for chemicals from sugar; and with Avantium for chemicals from wood.

We are making important steps towards the circular economy with our plans for a waste to chemistry plant in Rotterdam in a partnership with Van Gansewinkel, Air Liquide, AVR, Enerkem and others. Enerkem has developed technology which converts waste into synthesis gas – a common source material in the production of products such as methanol and ammonia. These products, in turn, are important in the production of many other products in the chemical industry.

The level of enthusiasm and capability in chemical research was made clear to me with the results of our annual Imagine Chemistry challenge, which we started last year. The initiative was set up to help solve chemistry-related challenges in categories ranging from revolutionizing plastics recycling, to developing waste water-free chemical sites. We had more than 200 entries, and the top three winners received joint development agreements with us to help bring their ideas to market.

The winning groups all have sustainable technologies with real commercial promise. Ecovia Renewables has developed a fermentation technology to make polyglutamic acid, which can be used to make thickeners for personal care products and other uses. Industrial Microbes, uses genetically modified microorganisms to turn CO2 and natural gas into key chemical building blocks, such as ethylene oxide. And Renmatix uses pressurized water to break down plant biomass into cellulosic products with a range of end-use applications.

But it’s not only about developing completely new processes. Scientists at AkzoNobel are also working every day to make tweaks to our existing plants to make them more efficient and sustainable. We developed a new process step to increase capacity of Levasil silica products, which are used in the production of touch screens for phones and tablets, while a totally new approach to salt production in Spain will reduce vast amounts of waste.

Innovation is also critical to another key area of our sustainability agenda – finding ways to use less energy and use a higher share of renewable energy. One great example is our use of biosteam from a newly converted facility at Delfzijl, the Netherlands, which now delivers twice as much sustainable energy from the same amount of biomass – in this case reclaimed wood. An additional 10% of AkzoNobel’s energy consumption in the Netherlands now comes from renewable sources, resulting in a reduction of 100,000 tons of CO2 per year.

There are countless more examples of the importance of chemical research in shaping the future not just of the industry, but of society itself. Perhaps the people who took part in that survey need to think again – or reconsider their definition of newsworthy – because chemical innovation is thriving and producing results that we can be proud of. I invite every chemist who thinks differently to join us and be part of our Imagine Chemistry challenge.