Developing the Future of Chemicals

Chemicals research and development is driving innovations that could help offer new solutions for the future. Muriel Axfor highlights some of the leading research projects taking place around the world today.

The global economic downturn has focused the minds of many political leaders on the importance of innovation in providing the basis for continued and stable economic growth. Indeed, US President Obama's proposed 2011 R&D budget is set to give nearly all federal R&D agencies some increased spending, highlighting the administration's priority on innovation and renewable energy. This proposal chimes with the budget announced by the government of Singapore, which stated that businesses incurring costs in Singapore on R&D would qualify for a tax deduction or tax allowances.

Policy makers may be looking at the area of R&D with renewed interest. But there are many universities and institutions around the world that have retained a strong tradition of innovation, collaborating with business and governments alike.

Here we look at some of the leading projects from around the world.

Chemicals research in Manchester

Europe has a number of institutions that have been pivotal in working with the chemical industry to develop not only new processes and materials but also addressing some perhaps less well publicised environmental concerns.

The UK's University of Manchester is a case in point, laying claim to a number of major advances made during the past century. Operating across many disciplines, the University of Manchester has built a strong global reputation in the area of R&D.

Recent developments have led to the university being announced as the lead partner in a programme to develop the next generation of manufacturing methods for the chemical industry.

The amine synthesis through biocatalytic cascades (AMBIOCAS) programme brings together a range of experts, including, microbiologists, chemists and engineers. The £2.2m three-year project is funded by the EU's Framework Programme 7 (FP7).

"The University of Manchester has built a strong global reputation in the area of R&D."

The research will be carried out at the University of Manchester's Centre of Excellence for Biocatalysis, Biotransformation and Biocatalytic manufacture (CoEBio3). Led by CoEBio3's director Nick Turnerm, the centre and its five partners are expecting to make a major contribution to efforts to replace traditional chemical manufacturing, which is often reliant on toxic chemicals and solvents, with so-called 'white biotechnology', which uses the power of natural biocatalysts and modern manufacturing techniques.

The other partners are the University of Graz, Austria; Denmark Technical University, Evonik Degussa; Germany, University of Groningen, the Netherlands; and CLEA Technologies, the Netherlands.

Other areas of research include:

  • Integrating the nanoscale in formulations (INFORM) project. A three-year project coordinated by the University of Manchester enabling the world's leading formulation scientists share best practice on the use of nanomaterials in formulations. The EU-funded project includes partners from around the world.
  • A team at the University of Manchester's faculty of Life Science has found that certain fungi can degrade plastic in soil. The work opens the possibility that fungi could be used to degrade plastics such as polyurethane instead of dumping them in landfill sites.
  • The University of Manchester has strong links with businesses. Among the notable collaborations was the 2009 link-up between the university's school of chemistry and Murata Manufacturing, a Japan-based producer of electronic devices. The two organisations are working in the area of nanotechnology.

Covering all bases in Asia

Asia is now regarded as a leading economic powerhouse with strong manufacturing and a growing R&D base. Singapore has made great strides to position itself as a location for chemical industry investment in the region. It now has a leading R&D centre that has collaborated with a number of chemical majors.

"Singapore has made great strides to position itself as a location for chemical industry investment in the region."

The Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES) is one of Singapore's family of research institutes under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). Established in 2002, the centre has the capability to cover a range of activities from exploratory research to process development, optimisation and problem solving. ICES' R&D efforts are mainly focused on addressing the current and future needs of oil & gas, petrochemical, speciality/fine chemicals, biomedical, alternative energy and process engineering industries in Singapore. Industry partners include AstraZeneca, Mitsui Chemicals, Nippon Paint (Singapore) and Schering Plough.

The ICES boasts a list of high-profile collaborations and links:

  • During the first quarter of 2009 ICES entered into a collaborative project with EADS, a global leader in aerospace and defence, to investigate the conversion of algae oil to kerosene for jet fuel. The collaboration is a follow-up on a previous project begun in 2008.
  • During 2009 ICES signed an agreement with DyStar Singapore, the local branch of Germany's DyStar Textilfarben, in which the company will be collaborating with various research groups at ICES. DyStar has said that the Singapore research team is an integrated part of its global research efforts to develop new colours with specific performance and application benefits.

Polymers in the Netherlands

The Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in the Netherlands is a research-driven, design-orientated university with an international reputation. Its research is focused within the engineering science and technology field, and as such it has developed strong links with sectors such as the chemical industry:

  • At the start of 2010, TU/e was granted a two-year project that will investigate a modular micro reactor platform for the manufacture of high-tech chemical products. The project's supporters include Chemtrix and DSM.
  • The start of 2010 also saw €1 milion allocated to a multidisciplinary team of polymer researchers who are investigating how the macroscopic behaviour of polymers depends on the structure of the material on a molecular level. It is hoped the knowledge gained will lead to the ability to design polymers in such a way that they exhibit the mechanical behaviour that is required for a particular application.

A number of 'spin-off' companies have also come about as a result of research conducted at TU/e. One of these is Flowid BV, a spin-off of the Chemical Reactor Engineering Group at the Eindhoven University of Technology. During June 2009 its application laboratory was officially opened. Flowid is a specialised engineering company with a focus on micro structure reactor technology. These reactors allow chemicals to be mixed and reacted under optimal conditions so that more of the desired reaction product can be generated.

These projects all show that despite economic difficulties, there remains a strong consensus that research and development are essential for continued and vibrant economic growth in the chemicals industry. And with such strong research being undertaken around the world, the next decade could see the maturing of innovations to help not only drive efficiency but new renewable solutions that will make today's investments more than worth it.