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Innovative ideas, concepts and technologies that enable the shift from linear fossil-based economy to a circular economy can be found in academia, start-ups and global corporations alike. To bring new products and services to market quickly, more and more scientists in the chemical industry are breaking with a long-standing culture of secrecy and closed doors.

 

Instead, they collaborate across institutions and industries and openly exchange information and data, thereby contributing to the transformation of the chemical industry.

From fossil- to bio-based aniline

Aniline is an important base chemical that is currently made from petrochemical raw materials. It is a critical component in the production of dyes, medicines, synthetic rubber, and most importantly, polyu­rethanes. Covestro started the scale-up of a two-stage process to manufacture bio-based aniline from plant biomass that was developed in collaboration with Bayer and several academic institutes and research centres. This initiative is exciting for many reasons. The process itself is a great example of how biotechnology and chemistry can complement each other. In step one of the process, a newly-developed microorganism converts industrial sugars into an aniline precursor. Aniline is then obtained in a second step through chemical catalysis. With up to one hundred percent of the carbon content originating from renewable resources, the carbon footprint of bio-based aniline is significantly reduced compared to its fossil-based counterpart. And a broader raw material base could directly translate to the economic benefit of decreased exposure to market volatility.

Dr Klaus Schäfer, Chief Technology Officer of Covestro, notes: “In the long term, we want to cover 100% of our raw material requirements from alternative sources – by using CO2, biomass and recycling waste. The development of bio-based aniline exemplifies our efforts in this area and is an important step forward in reducing our dependence on fossil raw materials.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if the current raw material crisis – caused largely by economic recovery and supply chain disruptions – convinced chemical industry executives to increase investment in bio-based technologies.

Self-healing concrete

Beyond replacing fossil-derived products with bio-based counterparts, the chemical industry has long realised that bio­economy has much more to offer – like new functionalities. Picture the Pentagon, the Sydney Opera House, the Burj Khalifa, the London Underground metro or the Gotthard Base Tunnel. They all have one thing in common: they are made from the world’s most widely-used construction material, concrete. The concrete industry, however, has a huge negative environmental impact. The ability to prolong the lifespan of concrete buildings, bridges and tunnels is therefore an important contribution towards achieving the goals of the EU’s circular economy action plan and making concrete use more sustainable.

At Evonik Industries, a team of re­searchers has developed a new additive that provides concrete with self-healing ­powers. The brown powder called WallCraft contains bacterial spores which are bacteria in hibernation and can easily be mixed into mortar or cement. Then, if water seeps into concrete through small cracks, the spores wake up to produce calcium carbonate (limestone) which in turn seals the crack. Once the water source dries up, the bacteria go back into hibernation – until they encounter water again.

“Especially in new construction projects, we have the opportunity to reduce emissions over the long term by using longer-lasting concrete,” explains Magnus Kloster, head of the market segment for the construction industry at Evonik’s Interface & Performance business line. “If highway bridges last for 60 years instead of 50, for example, that saves tremendous amounts of material and CO2 emissions over the long term.”

Plastics without a trace

When it comes to plastics, some researchers are working on the exact opposite of lifespan prolongation. Hamburg-based start-up Traceless Materials is developing a plastics alternative that is fully compostable within weeks and made from agricultural residue. In contrast to conventional solutions, Traceless Materials’ plastic films, hard plastics and coatings have significantly lower CO2 emissions. And the start-up, which was founded in September 2020, appears to be on a strong growth path. Not only did they raise a seven-digit seed round only seven months after founding, they also recently acquired a

EUR 2.4 million grant from the European Innovation Council to accelerate the scale-up of technology, and they partnered with German online retailer OTTO to replace conventional shipping bags.

Recycling of multilayer composites

Yet not every packaging material should be bio-degradable. Just imagine hazardous goods packaging, for example. That’s why circularity is a key principle for the chemical industry. One approach that is contributing to circularity efforts stems from Bielefeld-based start-up Saperatec. They have developed a technology that enables separation and recycling of multilayer composite materials which were previously combusted. The raw materials obtained in this process can be returned to the value chain as high-quality single-variety materials.

While many researchers have potentially game-changing ideas, so far very few make it to commercial success. Founders often lack capital, industry-specific expertise and market access. That’s where corporate venture capital can offer strategic benefits for all parties involved. Two years ago, Henkel Tech Ventures, the investment arm of Henkel Adhesives, invested in Saperatec.

“At Henkel Tech Ventures, we strive to gain access to strategically relevant new technologies, applications and business models by partnering with and investing in start-ups such as Saperatec. It takes on average eight years to develop a new technology to its commercialisation. With all the competition in our globalised market, companies like us are less and less willing to wait this long. With these start-up ­relationships, we can gain rapid access to technologies with proven concepts that can be industrialised in much less time. Our understanding of the global packaging industry’s needs and our industry expertise are a great fit with Saperatec’s highly specialised separation liquids. We are committed to driving sustainable development towards a circular economy. Saperatec’s technology is the first to allow efficient and high-value recycling of flexible aluminium composite packaging. We will now continue to expand and optimise this product range for flexible packaging in order to provide our broad customer base all along the value chain, and especially in the food packaging industry, with sustainable and efficient added value,” says Dr Paolo Bavaj, Managing Director of Henkel Tech Ventures.

Conclusion

Since almost every product manufactured in Europe relies on chemicals, the chemical industry is a key enabler for the circular economy. Many processes and technologies that contribute to the transformation of our existing economy are currently under development. Yet in order to accelerate progress towards achieving key EU policy objectives – such as transitioning to a fully circular economy and becoming climate neutral by 2050 – it is imperative that we further mobilise research. We must encourage scientists to collaborate across disciplines and industries in order to bring radically new ideas to market.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Martin Bellof and Stefan Weber manage chemstars.nrw, an initiative to generate more and better start-ups in the chemical industry in North Rhine-Westphalia. Martin has 9+ years’ experience in biotech, chemistry and medical technology start-ups as a business development manager, founder, CEO and external consultant. Stefan has 7+ years’ open innovation experience as an ecosystem and portfolio manager in global corporations.

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