Chemistry combined with biology for a more sustainable world

Vanilla flavoring made from rice waste? Enzymes to recycle plastic? Detergents that harmlessly degrade into the environment? To meet our planet’s sustainability challenges, reorienting chemistry towards the development of solutions that can help spare resources, introduce new and renewable feedstocks, and reduce waste and pollution is a more and more promising direction. To do that, renewable materials and biotechnology present an outstanding opportunity, going so far as reinventing the way chemicals are produced.

Biotechnology for sustainability across sectors

From agriculture to personal care, food and beverages to aerospace, the sectors where chemistry can employ biotech and renewable feedstocks to provide sustainable alternatives to traditional materials and formulations are countless. “The sustainable use of renewable resources and biotechnology has gained momentum in the industry and has the potential to help solve some of the most pressing challenges faced by society today,” says Solvay CEO Ilham Kadri – namely issues such as air and water pollution, resource scarcity, and overpopulation, while helping to meet growing consumer demand for sustainable products.

And since Solvay is already a leader in certain bio-based products (such as guar, bio-sourced solvents and vanillin), we figured the time had come to accelerate and expand, reach new markets and come up with more and more innovative solutions that can support sustainability across markets.

Such is the reasoning behind the creation of our new Renewable Materials and Biotechnology platform. It’s inspired by and complements Solvay’s three other existing growth platforms: Battery Materials, Green Hydrogen and Thermoplastic Composites. “But this one is even more transversal. It integrates three aspects: the origin of materials, technologies for transformation, and product end of life,” details Thomas Canova, the head of the new platform. “And this concerns all our businesses.”

  
Carbon negative chemicals, enzymes, etc.

To briefly detail these three aspects: in terms of tackling the origin of materials, the key concept is renewable carbon, which encompasses all carbon sources (biomass, captured CO2, and recycling) that prevent the use of fossil carbon. Natural vanillin made from rice bran oil or solvents derived from plants are good examples of such products currently marketed by Solvay. And looking to the future, “we’re looking into transforming CO2 into chemicals,” adds Thomas. “It’s still very early days, but there is of course a double interest here: capturing CO2 from the atmosphere, and creating value from it, like plants do.” But it’s not only about innovation, it’s also about getting closer to customers and suppliers. “The journey towards carbon neutrality requires the participation of all stakeholders. The way we make our journey the journey of our customers and suppliers will be essential to succeed.”

The second aspect, technologies for transformation, is where biotechnology kicks in. Biotech is a set of disruptive technologies that use enzymes or living microbes to transform feedstocks into valuable molecules, and it has made significant advances in recent years. “That’s because the stars are now aligned,” explains Thomas. “Major advances in gene editing tools, the increased ability to treat and make sense of huge amounts of data, and the acceleration in lab testing brought by automation have made biotech less expensive, and it produces more predictable results, which means faster development. For example, molecules we thought were impossible to obtain through fermentation are now achievable.” And it’s just the beginning: synthetic biology is set to have an estimated economic impact of over €2 trillion annually by 2040.
 
Lastly, the new platform also aims to accelerate the development of new approaches to manage the end-of-life of products, to close the loop and foster circularity. “We take a holistic approach here by acknowledging that sustainability and circularity go together. Thinking about how our products will be managed after they have been used is as important as thinking about how to produce them,” says Thomas.

There are two main ways of sustainably managing a product’s end-of-life: recycling or reuse is the preferred way for durable products, such as with advanced polymers. “And when that’s not possible, designing our molecules to ensure their biodegradability is the way to go,” adds Thomas, citing the example of molecules contained in detergents that you can’t stop from seeping into the environment after you clean your windows or wash your dishes.

Thomas Canova


“We’re looking into transforming CO2 into chemicals. It’s still very early days, but there is of course a double interest here: capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and creating value from it, like plants do.”

Thomas Canova, Head of Solvay’s Renewable Materials and Biotechnology platform

Open innovation up and down the value chain

In addition to helping customers improve the sustainability of their products and activities, creating this Renewable Materials and Biotechnology platform will also play a fundamental role in achieving Solvay’s own sustainability goals set out in our One Planet roadmap, including increasing the share of sustainable solutions to 65% of sales and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030. “The race towards net zero emissions is in the platform’s vocation; it exists to help Solvay go faster in this direction, and developing carbon negative chemicals will be part of that,” adds Thomas.

The platform also aims to accelerate open innovation, helping Solvay achieve strategic partnerships to increase its capacity to innovate and expand to new markets. An example can be found in the current collaboration between Solvay’s Materials business unit and French startup Carbios to develop the enzymatic recycling of polymers, which would enable complex, multilayer plastic films to be recycled.

Concretely speaking, the platform will consist of a dedicated team scattered across Solvay locations around the world, which is currently being put together, structured around a core team led by Thomas. “I’m passionate about biotechnology and the use of renewable resources. I always believed Solvay should accelerate in this field and our new platform is the concretization of many efforts from many people,” Thomas says. “Sustainable innovation positions chemistry as THE key enabler of the solutions that will matter in our lives.”