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December 12, 2016

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Innovation is ingrained as vital part of Solvay’s DNA

STEPPING into Solvay’s site at Minhang District in Shanghai three years ago, Zhao Gangkai, the then newly research and inno­vation director for China, was confident it wouldn’t take long for his team to bear fruits.

Facts proved him right, as in October, Bernard L. Feringa, a Dutch scientist and one of the technology consultants at Solvay’s research and innova­tion center, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. It has initialed mass of works with Feringa’s cooperation.

Solvay, a Belgium-based chemicals company with over 150 years’ history, “proved it stays at the vanguard in the sci­ence field, both on insight and implementation,” Zhao said.

Innovation and social respon­sibilities are part of Solvay’s DNA, and the firm chose China as the main front for its work.

The laboratory, Eco-Efficient Products and Processes Lab, or “E2P2L”, that Zhao leads pro­vides solutions on reducing carbon emissions and saving energy in China.

Solvay predicted that China will account for 34 percent of the global chemicals market by 2020, dominated by eco-friendly products.

While countries all over the world today urgently need to cut carbon emission and use clean energy, “China gives more vigor and opportunities,” Zhao said.

Last year one-third of the US$329 billion investment in clean technologies from all over the world came to China, PricewaterhouseCoopers said. The number of investment deals rose to 143 last year from 96 in 2014.

To penetrate the Chinese market, Solvay developed E2P2L as a research hub integrating global resources while devot­ing to find new solutions.

Feringa, the Nobel Prize win­ner, last month visited the lab bringing his award for work on molecular motors — devices a thousand times thinner than the width of a human hair yet able to work as engines to drive machines.

While our cells work as mo­tors to power organs, scientists like Feringa tried out synthetic molecules to drive machines at the least cost of energy and pollution.

Soon after Zhao joined the team, they developed a solvent to seal moisture in plants, which would help revive vege­tation in West China devastated by disasters such as drought and water and soil erosion.

Piloting such application in Lanzhou in Gansu Province, Solvay proved the solvent was successful in retaining water to fasten the roots of plants and soil around.

In the past, even if the chemi­cals helped propel the growth of plants, there would be ques­tions about side effects on nature.

Rachel Carson, an American writer and a biology scientist, depicted the vicious influence chemicals have such as killing insects and destroying soils in her renowned book Silent Spring.

In modern times, however, smart chemicals producers are bent on avoiding the same mis­takes by creating things from the nature.

The soil solvent, for example, is no longer a chemical com­pound containing side effects. It is extracted from beans, “fi­nally absorbed by the plants after they grew mature with the help of it,” Zhao said.

The main products E2P2L aims to serve China are bio­chemicals like the solvent.

While the practical use of molecular motors would be “at least 5-10 years later” accord­ing to Feringa, the soil solvent is ready to benefit the world.

Francois Monnet, Solvay’s sustainable chemicals research and innovation director, said last year the group reaped 1 billion euros (US$1.1 billion) by selling bio products.

Last year China took up 10 percent of Solvay’s global sales totaling 12.4 billion euros, while in 2014 its share was 8 percent.

While bioproducts could replace crude and help cut pollution, cost is the main chal­lenge facing many chemicals producers.

While the soil solvent at Solvay would be used in China as long as officials at Lanzhou get permission from the central government, Zhao’s team has developed another surfactant made from biodiesel. But un­fortunately the tumble in the crude price last year put paid to its fortune. Surfactant, for in­stance, can be used to improve the performance of shampoo.

Prices of biodiesel as a com­mon commodity made from plants’ or animals’ grease range from 3,000 yuan to 6,000 yuan (US$436-$872) per ton, competitive when crude sold at US$100 per barrel or equiva­lent to around 5,400 yuan per ton. They would be preferred especially as a clean resource.

But when crude tumbled below US$50 a barrel, all producers would continue using it.

Apart from the price, the expenditure on developing such products would be high for chemical companies, which might risk production hurting the environment.

Solvay would not allow that.

At E2P2L, researchers are expected to be dedicated on in­novative studies. Whether the new findings would be put into industrial use will be decided after the efforts from teams on marketing and production.

While biochemicals would rapidly change the way chemi­cal producers serve the world, any research bringing pos­sible improvement to society is welcomed.

This year Solvay has also provided over 1,000 high per­formance materials for the world’s first solar airplane, participated in lightening of materials for automobiles.


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