Monday, 28 February 2011

DSM brightens up innovation

DSM has taken its transformation a step further with a bold corporate rebranding that focuses on science and innovation. The Netherlands-based company has moved steadily away from being a petrochemicals and chemicals producer, and is now focused on health, nutrition and materials, which it is driving ahead through a highly regarded innovation strategy.
The new brand has as its slogan "Bright Science. Brighter Living". This is said to embody the philosophy that "DSM uses its science and innovation in partnership with its customers to create products and solutions that make a positive difference to people lives".

With "Bright Science", adds CEO Feike Sijbesma, "we mean the unique way in which we combine our Life Sciences and Materials Sciences disciplines, technologies and talents. In partnership with our customers we create innovative and sustainable solutions that address the key challenges facing society today.”

DSM invested $563m in R&D (5% of sales - well above the chemical industry norm) in 2009 but has also been espousing open innovation and venture funding to extend its innovation returns.

Last week it paid $790m to acquire Martek Biosciences, the US-based nutritional supplements producer. Martek produces omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) for its nutritional oils by using a strain of algae. Martek currently has an algae technology pipeline that can be used for industrial biotechnology applications, but it does not have an existing business for it yet, said Stephan Tanda, managing board member of DSM responsible for the life sciences, nutrition and pharma businesses in the Americas.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

US dominates chemical research over 10 years

Academics with US affiliations took 70 out of the top 100 slots in a recent listing of the world's leading chemists, published by the UK's Times Higher Education. Ranked by the impact of their citations over the past decade, as monitored by Thomson Reuters, the listing also shows that no fewer than 60% cited nanotechnology as their major field of research or interest.

Lieber - prolific and top ranking chemist
No other country came close. The next in the list was Germany with seven leading chemists and then the UK, with four. The top two academics in the UK were from the QUILL laboratory in Queens University, Belfast, cited for their work on ionic liquids. They are Professor Ken Seddon and Dr John Holbrey.

QUILL represents a classic academic/industry consortium for innovation in green chemistry and was founded in 1999 with 17 founder members, including Bioplymer Engineering; BNFL; BP Amoco; Chem Vite; Chevron; DuPont; Elementis; Exxon; ICI; Merck; Sachem; Sasol; Schering Plough; SmithKline Beecham; Solvay; UOP; and Zeneca. QUILL's current membership includes Chevron; Clea Technologies; Cristal Millennium; Cytec; Eastman Chemicals; Enviroways Technologies; Givaudan; Invista; Merck; Petronas; Procter & Gamble; SACHEM; Shell; Strata; Koei; and Umicore.

For the record, the top ranking chemist was Charles Lieber of Harvard University, with 74 papers published and 17,776 citations!

Friday, 18 February 2011

Will EU bans drive innovation?

The EU will ban the use of six chemical substances classifed as being of very high concern (SVHC) within the next three to five years unless companies ask for authorisation for their use. The move, a result of the EU's Reach chemicals policy, is being hailed from some quarters as a spur to innovation, in that it will force the chemical industry to search for safer alternatives.

The chemicals are 5-tert-butyl-2,4,6-trinitro-m-xylene (musk xylene), 4,4'-diaminodiphenylmethane (MDA), hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDD), bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP) and dibutyl phthalate (DBP). These are three phthalates, a flame retardant, a synthetic musk and a compound used in epoxy resins and adhesives.

They are the first chemicals to be placed on the SVHC candidate list to become subject to authorisation under Reach.

“Today’s decision is an example of the successful implementation of Reach and of how sustainability can be combined with competitiveness. It will encourage industry to develop alternatives and foster innovation," said European Commission vice president Antonio Tajani.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) says companies wishing to sell or use these substances will need to demonstrate that the required safety measures have been taken to adequately control the risks posed by the substances, or that the substances' benefits for the economy and society outweighed the risks.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Bayer uses carbon dioxide as raw material in PUs

Scientists around the globe are searching for ways of using the vast amounts of CO2 greenhouse gas released during energy production. The molecule is a very stable one, but Bayer has come up with a process that uses the gas in the manufacture of polyurethanes.

The pilot plant is inaugurated
It has just started up a pilot plant at its Leverkusen site to test the innovation on a technical scale. Bayer is not giving much away at this stage, but says simply that "the plant produces a chemical precursor into which CO2 is incorporated and then processed into polyurethanes... as a result, the waste gas and key contributor to climate change can now be recycled and used as a raw material and substitute for petroleum." 

The innovation is the result of work carried out by Bayer, energy company RWE and RWTH Aachen University. Bayer and the university jointly run the CAT Catalytic Centre, which has developed the breakthrough catalyst used.

If the testing phase goes well, Bayer hopes to have the new process in commercial use by 2105.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

LANXESS invests for green rubber

German polymer and rubber specialist LANXESS moved this week to strengthen its commitment to sourcing non-petrochemical feedstocks for its synthetic rubber business by increasing its stake in US biotech startup Gevo. After investing a total of $27m, it now holds a 9.1% stake in the Colorado firm, which is developing a route to isobutanol from fermentable sugars derived from corn.

Gevo facility for isobutanol
LANXESS has signed a 10-year supply agreement with Gevo for its bio-isobutanol, which LANXESS will dehydrate and turn into isobutene, which it uses as a key ingredient in the manufacture of butyl rubber. It has already successfully trialed the process in a pilot facility in Leverkusen, Germany

The move is part of LANXESS's strategy of sharpening its focus on green chemistry, says CEO Axel Heitmann. It also targets sustainable production, which Heitman expects "to gain in significance in coming years".

The company has recently refocused its innovation effort, to concentrate on a number of mega-trends and to establish a central innovation group to coordinate innovation across business units. You can read all about this in my interview with Werner Breuers, LANXESS board member, carried out as part of the ICIS Innovation Awards 2010 coverage.

Gevo is currently retrofitting an ethanol facility to produce 50,000 tonnes/year of isobutanol at Luveme, Minnesota, scheduled for start-up in the first half of next year. It aims to have a capacity of 1m tonne/year by 2015 through acquisitions and joint ventures. Isobutanol can also be used as a gasoline and jet fuel blendstock as well as for making plastics, fibres and rubber.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Chemicals High Level Group stresses innovation

The European Commission's High Level Group on the Competitiveness of the European Chemicals Industry met last week to review progress after several years of industry/Commission meetings and reports. Innovation is still high on the agenda, as reported by Nigel Davis of ICIS in his latest analysis of the HLG process
The latest meeting also received coverage from fellow bloggers at SusChem, the joint Commission/industry platform for sustainable chemistry.
Georgio Squinzi (left), Cefic president, spoke at the meeting, noting that: "The High Level Group report provided us in 2009 with a strategic agenda and Cefic has drawn up a roadmap for implementation, involving its entire membership. A significant number of actions have already been taken on the recommendations falling within our responsibility.
The recommendations from the High Level Group were drawn up two years ago and whilst they remain valid, we need to step up a gear. Time is working against us!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Genomatica signs deal for syngas to chemicals

Syngas - a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen - has a long history of use in the chemical industry, both for large-scale ammonia and methanol production and for conversion of C1 feedstocks - coal and natural gas - into chemicals and fuels via Fischer-Tropsch reactions. But a novel, less energy intensive route is now being developed by US-based biostart-up Genomatica, which has identified and produced bacteria that can convert syngas directly into chemicals.

This week Genomatica signed a development project with fellow US company Waste Management to develop a process that takes syngas produced by Waste Management via controlled combustion of municipal household waste and turn into intermediate and basic chemicals.

Just which chemicals, Genomatica is not revealing at this stage, but it has other bugs that can produce butanediol and isopropanol and adipic acid, amongst other things.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

EU green paper sets out innovation programme

The EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation Máire Geoghegan-Quinn (left) has today presented a Green paper which proposes major changes to the way EU research and innovation is funded.

This, it argues, will make participation easier, increase scientific and economic impact and provide better value for money for EU taxpayers.

The proposals are out for consultation until 20 May. More details can be seen on the SusChem blog.

I have previously flagged this initiative up on this blog, arguing that the funding system, through the cumbersome FP7 process does not work at all well for the chemicals industry. There are issues about the pre-competitive nature of the innovation supported, and the fact that projects have to include companies and institutions in several EU states -a proviso that is not reflected for example in the unified US market.

The green paper proposes a Common Strategic Framework (CSF) that would create a coherent set of instruments along the whole "innovation chain" starting from basic research, culminating in bringing innovative products and services to market, and also supporting non-technological innovation, for example in design and marketing.

Friday, 4 February 2011

BASF boosts innovation spend

News released today shows BASF, the world's biggest chemical company, increased its research and development (R&D) spend in 2010 to a record level of nearly €1.5bn ($2.1bn). Spending will be even higher in 2011, it added. In 2009, the company spent €1.40bn on R&D, up from €1.35bn in 2008, and had an R&D to sales ratio of 2.76%.

“The company attaches great importance to continuity in R&D and has further increased its commitment even in tough times,” said Andreas Kreimeyer, research executive director and member of BASF's board of executive directors. “Research and development are the foundations to secure our future. BASF will therefore also be increasing its R&D spending in 2011."

BASF currently has 9,600 employees engaged in R&D work.

EU reviews innovation standing

A fascinating insight into national research and innovation performances in the EU and internationally is provided in the recent Innovation Union Scoreboard for 2010, published by Inno Metrics, part of the European Commission's DG Enterprise and Industry. 

The report shows, amongst other things, that in global terms, the EU's 27 members states are rapidly losing their lead in innovation over China and Brazil - two rapidly industrialising nations with high economic growth.

It also shows the US and Japan are holding their lead over the EU27, but that the EU27 are holding their lead over India and Russia. The results will not be pleasing reading to the EU bureaucrats who have high hopes for their Europe 2020 Innovation Union initiative, launched in mid-2010.

Within the EU 27, the Scoreboard shows leading innovators are Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Germany, with the UK just scraping in in fifth place.

The IUS 2010 groups EU member states into four performance groups, based on average innovation performance across 24 indicators.

These it designates Innovation leaders, Innovation followers, Moderate innovators and Modest innovators.
Leaders: Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden all show a performance well above that of
the EU27.
Followers: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands,
Slovenia and the UK all show a performance close to that of the EU27.
Moderate: The performance of Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Poland,
Portugal, Slovakia and Spain is below that of the EU27.
Modest: The performance of Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania is well below that of
the EU27.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

BASF scales up eco-polymer, finally

BASF this week starts up added capacity for Ecoflex biodegradable polymer at its main Ludwigshafen site in Germany. It is raising output from 14,000 to 74,000 tonnes/year, which it says should meet market demands to 2020, assuming 20%/year growth as BASF is doing.

The expanded Ecoflex plant
I thought it might be interesting to look back over the development of this innovation, and indeed it was. It shows just how long - over a decade - chemical companies have to persevere to get new products into the market, especially when they are up against established, high-volume products such as polyethylene.

Ecoflex has the properties of conventional polyethylene but is fully biodegradable under industrial composting conditions. It is thus competing purely on a green agenda, but with higher price given the new technology and much lower economies of scale.

BASF first started selling Ecoflex over 10 years ago, from a small 8,000 tonne/year plant in Ludwigshafen. This capacity increased to the current 14,000 tonnes/year after an additional plant was built in Schwarzheide in 2006. The announcement for the plant that has just been built was made in April 2008.

At the same time as it added new base capacity, BASF is also upping compounding capacity for its Ecovio offering - which is a blend of Ecoflex - based on petrochemical feedstocks - and a polylactic acid polymer, derived from corn starch. This, it says, is also doing well, on the back of its 75% or so renewable bio-based content.

Doubtless ever-growing concerns over the green agenda, renewable feedstocks and recycling will spur further interest in the material - but I wonder how much BASF has committed to developing Ecoflex and the market for it over the past 10 years - just how long is the pay-back period, and how many other companies without BASF's resources can stay the course?