ChemistryCAN realise breakthrough innovation

Chemicals have always been a catalyst – not only for chemical reaction, but for transformational change in society. Think penicillin, potable drinking water through chlorine, packaging that extends food shelf life and countless other life-changing developments we now almost take for granted. So, what will it take to scale the next-generation of breakthroughs in chemistry – those that truly represent sustainable solutions on a global and transformational scale?
Certain conditions are required to realise chemistry’s potential to support Europe becoming the global hub for implementing and scaling solutions to global challenges. Here we look closely at two ideas – carbon productivity and e-mobility.

An exponential mindset

By nature people think in a linear way about continuous improvement and incremental change. But global challenges are exponential – for example climate change or food security – and to solve them we need breakthroughs. One big opportunity needing this approach is the catalytic conversion of CO2 to CO to create a chemical feedstock, or the use of CO2 itself as a feedstock replacing oil. This requires a change of mindset at many levels, but perhaps most importantly of all, at a societal level. “Society has demonised CO2,” says Patrick Thomas, CEO of Covestro, “yet the chemical industry is essentially carbon-based. Human beings and plants are a carbon-based life form. Trees and plants can’t live without CO2. Innovation should be about exponential change. Society needs to think of CO2 as a solution, and a valuable source of carbon, not a problem. We can be sequestering greenhouse gases into useful polymers. And yet we essentially say CO2 is evil and a form of waste.”

A lot of breakthrough technologies make use of CO2. For example, those replacing oil with CO2 as a feedstock in polyurethane foams for furniture and lightweight insulation; or those now using carbon from non-food biomass like agricultural waste to create aniline, a major intermediate chemical product, rather than burning the waste into CO2.

Patrick Thomas, CEO Covestro
Patrick Thomas, CEO Covestro

“Society need to think of CO2 as a solution, and a valuable source of carbon, not a problem. We can be sequestering greenhouse gases into useful polymers.”

Carbon productivity

To see carbon as a solution will require a shift in thinking, from decarbonisation to carbon productivity. “If you can find alternative sources of carbon,” Patrick explains, “you can think about how you invest them.” This is a way of talking in metrics that economists and financers in other areas of industry or agriculture understand. That is, thinking about the productivity of carbon.

To give an example, carbon in a polyurethane foam in a domestic fridge saves electricity, so reducing the CO2 emitted. In the normal life of a fridge, it will pay back the carbon invested in its manufacture 70 times over. Return on carbon employed would be remarkably familiar sounding to a banker, a more understandable metric, and more accessible language than talking about chemistry. But it takes a change of mindset.

A collaborative mindset

If innovation is about exponential change, and getting people in a mindset of striving to achieve what they think is impossible, then there is another mindset change required, which is to move from secrecy to collaboration. To be prepared to share good ideas and make them open source. It may not sound like good business, but getting ideas out in the open can be a vital stepping stone to a breakthrough innovation – you can’t bring about exponential change by working in secret.

The way to do this is through licensing, alliances and partnerships. SusChem is a good example – a collaboration of small and large companies, scientists, universities and policy makers, and  a major contributor to sustainable chemistry at the European level.  “We have to use such alliances better, to be transparent as an industry.”  says Richard Northcote, Covestro’s Chief Sustainability Officer, “Also to look at competition as not coming from within the industry, but from traditional materials we are trying to substitute.” In effect, looking for the new markets and making an effort to substitute materials with new lighter or better materials, where chemistry is the enabler.

One such example is e-mobility, or electric vehicles running on batteries. “Batteries are mini chemical plants,” Patrick Thomas reminds us. Chemistry will contribute not just the very sophisticated technology needed for the batteries but, as the vehicles need to be super-light, the composite materials necessary for insulation, furnishings, glazing and so on.

Of course the vehicles and the whole concept of transportation will be completely different by the time petrol and diesel vehicles are phased out. Autonomous vehicles may well be the norm, and the technology already exists. But accelerating the shift to the widespread adoption of e-mobility will require collaboration both within and across industries, as well as with policy makers.

“At present, many European directives are designed to protect traditional materials and their industries – steel for cars, for example – which makes substitution of materials difficult.”

Richard Northcote, Covestro Chief Sustainability Officier
Richard Northcote, Covestro Chief Sustainability Officier

An implementation mindset

While all this sounds perfectly plausible, there is another piece to the jigsaw if these and other sorts of breakthroughs are to scale to the level required. “Legislation needs to change to allow progress,” says Richard Northcote. At present, many European directives are designed to protect traditional materials and their industries – steel for cars, for example – which makes substitution of materials difficult. We mustn’t forget that Europe, with its traditions of science and education, is still a leader in innovation.

Downstream from the chemical industry, Philips Lighting aims for 80% of its portfolio to be assured externally as sustainable products. “Innovation is central to this,” says Dr Nicola Kimm, Head of Sustainability, Environment, Health & Safety, “and our product designers document why products qualify as sustainable, in regard to energy use, circularity, substances, packaging, weight & materials, and social areas.”

The implementation of innovations requires a favourable environment. Currently, innovation in Europe is implemented in China or scaled up in America. Last year, China produced more electric vehicles than the rest of the world put together. When there’s a need, they find a way to get on with it quickly.

In other words, the chemical industry can be a catalyst for transformational change, but it needs even more cross-industry and cross-discipline collaboration. And while Europe is an innovation hub, industry needs support from policymakers to take innovations rapidly from research to implementation. But perhaps the most important enabler of all is a deep shift of mindset about what is possible, and how to go about achieving it.