Green chemistry’s industrial strategies

Photo Pascal Juery / Group Executive Vice-President, Rhodia / December 23rd, 2011

It's been less than fifteen years since the issue of green chemistry has become a matter of public debate, yet it now seems to prove strategic for that industry. Far from being a mere compliance with standards dictated by regulations, this is a matter of strong industrial choices - choices by no means limited to developing new processes, but truly involving a major overhaul of the chemistry industry.

ParisTech Review – Green chemistry is now recognized as a strategic issue. What are the factors that contributed to this rise?

Pascal Juery - It’s been a slow evolution, which now has the feel of a revolution. For more than twenty years the industry has been reflecting on its impact on the environment, safety and health. This has resulted in a series of voluntary approaches, which focus on personal safety and security procedures. The concept of responsible care, launched in the early 1990s, is now a worldwide trend. It implies an idea of constant and voluntary improvement regardless of standards and regulations. A code of conduct of sorts; one of its challenges was to better document the impact of our activities.

Since the last decade, the concept of sustainable development has taken over, while revamping the approach in depth. Nowadays the full spectrum of activities is involved, and there is broader concern to manage risk as well – the whole range of stakeholders is now taken into consideration, from consumer to supplier and customer or even the public at large. While in the early 2000’s one could still doubt the willingness of the industry to commit beyond “green painting”, that is to say, to approaches merely limited to communication and image, today one must acknowledge that in just a few years’ time, the entire industry has undergone a swift and thorough transformation.

The emergence of sustainable development was brought about by the collective building-up of awareness of the impact of human activity on climate, through global warming, and more generally on the environment as a whole. It could be said that chemical manufacturers had a ringside seat. It very soon became clear that we could either take the lead or end up condemned, probably in the short run, to be to be dumped by both our clients and consumers – because a collective shift in awareness translates into a significant change in demand, even within B to B settings, given that industrial clients relay or anticipate consumer demands. This is a general trend.

Thus this is the context that needs to be taken into account to understand why green chemistry ever emerged. More than an answer to suddenly higher standards, this was a well understood opportunity to reinvent the industry to find a competitive advantage.

So what does the term “green chemistry” specifically encompass?

If one refers to the “tables of the law”, twelve principles were formalized, ranging from prevention (producing less waste), quite a general principle, to much more specific recommendations like favoring catalytic reagents over stoichiometric ones. The general idea was to favor processes using or producing less harmful or dangerous substances.

Some of these principles have been in our genes for a long time, such as minimizing the risk of chemical hazards (explosions, fires)… Others have always been goals on the horizon for us, like economizing atoms (which consists in maximizing the number of reactive atoms in a process); whereas concern for efficiency and economic savings has taken a keen dimension with the recent rise in the cost of raw materials. The same was true for the concern to save energy: here, the economic equation is consistent with a concern for the environment. The shift towards green chemistry has somehow been a natural evolution for the business.

Other principles constituted advances, enticing to the industry to pay attention to what is happening outside its boundaries – and even after products have been used. For instance, it may consist in designing products that can dissociate into innocuous degradation products, which do not linger in the environment – so-called “biodegradable” products are a good example.

In general, the challenge is to refine or revamp processes by broadening the scope of our options. The standards of green chemistry incite us to consider fresh approaches for our business, embracing aspects that on the past had been overlooked by industrialists. Sometimes a process needs to be overhauled from A to Z, by replacing a solvent with water or, for instance, by resorting to microwave heating. But overall we have been able to build on previous achievements, and this type of innovation has an incremental dimension.

How much impact is attributable to regulation in these developments?

It is certainly not neutral and of course the challenge is sometimes to anticipate or to comply with standards. However we are dealing with strategic choices, and this explains why a company like Rhodia has much higher standards than mandatory regulations. For example, very early on, we have had a goal of reducing the environmental footprint (liquids, energy, greenhouse gas emissions), even though legislation is really not restrictive on these topics. Over the past ten years, our greenhouse gases emissions have been divided by a factor of five. And technological advance has economic value: such are the choices that later allowed us to invest, in Brazil and in Korea, in facilities for greenhouse gas elimination, and thus to monetize this skill.

In fact, the market is a spur sharper than any regulation will ever be. Another example: some of our customers are food industrials. We sell synthetic vanilla, vanillin. However what they are buying from us is not tons of vanillin in bulk – what they are buying is a food security concept. We are thus in capacity to offer full traceability: about the processes used, about raw materials, and even concerning the management of facilities.

Beyond this specific case, what are clients asking for?

They are interested in anything that can help them reduce their emissions (of greenhouse gas emissions but also, in Europe, of CO2). Our challenge is therefore to reduce both our own environmental footprint and our customer’s footprint.

In a more general manner, product traceability has become an imperative in today’s world. After that, it’s a bit of a case by case basis. For example, car manufacturers are very keen on limiting energy consumption, and therefore the weight of their vehicles. Thus they ask us for new materials, which must be both tougher and lighter.

As you can see, this often leads to a deeper integration of our customers in engineering processes. Such was the case, for example, with Michelin, with which we have a very elaborate partnership to produce high quality silica so as to bestow better environmental and economic performance to their tires.

These partnerships are now an essential part of our efforts to innovate. Regarding automotive manufacturers, not only do we work hand in hand with the manufacturer, but we also work with its tier 1 supplier. Chemistry is in a way the mother of industries, being the one who provides the materials processed by other manufacturers.

Are such business line logics becoming more important?

Indeed. And this framework has seen initiatives emerge within competitiveness clusters, whereby academics and diverse stakeholders of the value chain meet in innovation ecosystems. One could cite Axelera, the worldwide competitiveness cluster Chimie et Environnement Lyon & Rhône-Alpes (Chemistry and Environment Lyons & Rhône-Alpes region), created in 2005 by Arkema, the French national research agency (CNRS), GDF Suez, IFP Energies Nouvelles and Rhodia, which also includes SMB’s. The same players have also created Axel’One, a platform for collaborative innovation, where chemistry and the environment focus towards the great challenges of our time, namely in the areas of clean processes and innovative materials. Research and development projects based on a synergy between the industry and universities have been identified in the pursuit for an environment-friendly chemistry with strong added value. One of the challenges of this cluster is to have the various stakeholders meet in person in order to accelerate the inception of collaborative projects.

It should be noted that these projects of open innovation incorporate companies that may otherwise be competitors. This has led us to manage intellectual property issues through a mixed system: there are elements that we share and elements we don’t. But as a whole, many a new dynamic is to be expected where R & D is concerned.

Beyond product conception and pathways for innovation, what is the impact of green chemistry on the strategies of a company like Rhodia?

This concept is, in a way, the core of the reactor. It has led us to reconsider a great many things, such as the analysis of the life cycle of raw materials or of production processes and the use of our products, with a constant questioning of their impact. This has an incidence both on the design stage and the production stage. Green chemistry has thus become the basis of a system of management standards that is shared by all the staff, up to and including field managers.

Furthermore, sustainable development became a corporate identity. We are not just talking of a charter of values, here, but of management evaluation, based on continual improving from the field to the top management. This frame of reference identifies six stakeholders, which means six directions for improvement. Each practice is evaluated in reference to the best practices. The evaluation is performed both by audit and by the employees themselves; each production site, department, lab or activity is evaluated on an annual basis.

This responsible policy can drive crucial decisions. The group once decided to classify a product as cancerigenous, while legislation did not required it, and informed its clients. This choice was not easy but it was understood by the clients as contributing to their own responsibility.

The group employees appreciated the whole approach, which they understood as a strong industrial choice, made in a troubled time. They liked the long term vision, which meant the top management believed in the future.

The chemical industry is a sector which has suffered in the media in recent decades and for chemists is very important to work in conditions that do honor to the profession. “Sustainable” and “responsible” are terms also suitable to define a job well done in professional and workmanlike manner. Internationally, this can prove to be an asset, because what emerges from all of these endeavors is quality. Today, 30% of our turnover is related to these practices. Most of the time it concerns innovative products that sell well and whose margins are higher.

In-house, one notable consequence has been the emergence of new professions, such as ecotoxicology, and the development of new skills, especially in innovation. We have thus developed a platform for innovation that connects economics and ecology with the aim to produce better, with less waste, and in a more compact manner. One of the R & D teams specializes in the analysis of the life cycle of products.

Life cycle also brings about a chain of added value, and it can be extremely interesting to move across this chain to develop new activities. We have thus recently created a factory dedicated to recycling low-energy light bulbs, which has led us to work with new partners such as recycling associations for instance. We also salvage used climbing ropes, whose polyamide is directly recycled. Beyond that is the idea of exploiting what has been called “the urban mine”, that is to say all the raw materials present in waste.

Finally, there is the quest to develop renewable raw materials, which involves exploring processes and methods far removed from traditional chemistry: producing solvents from sugar cane ethanol, plant-based surfactants, bio-sourced polyamides made from castor oil, natural polymers as an alternative to synthetic polymers (of fossil origin)… all this is creating the right conditions for the development of phytochemistry, which will not replace traditional chemistry but is developing concurrently.

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Note from the editors: Rhodia is a patron of ParisTech Review.

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