Solvay-CNRS : four decades of scientific advancement in the field of chemicals
Bringing leading scientists together
By Anaïs Culot, CNRS Le Journal
For more than 45 years, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Solvay have been working together on chemical research and its use in industry. Their goal: to develop disruptive solutions in response to societal challenges. Chemical processes, materials, green chemistry, energy storage, and so on. Let’s take a look back at the main themes of this atypical partnership.
Historically, the CNRS has signed contracts with chemical companies since before the 1940s. Ernest Solvay - founder of the company of the same name - started organising scientific conferences in 1911, bringing together the leading scientists of his time. Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Hendrick Lorentz and Jean Perrin discussed advances in physics and chemistry at these conferences at the beginning of the 20th century. With this compelling attraction drawing them together, it should come as no surprise that Solvay and the CNRS are renewing their 45-year old partnership yet again in 2022 through a framework agreement.
“We are collaborating on common scientific challenges, such as the development of greener processes, high-throughput methodologies such as robotics and microfluidics, more efficient catalytic systems or the formulation of advanced materials to accelerate innovation and reduce the time to market for our products," said Patrick Maestro, Solvay's Chief Scientific Officer. Since 2006, this cooperation has resulted in over 165 patents, 370 contracts and 250 joint scientific publications . It continues to grow with over 20 new projects being initiated every year. But what exactly have they been studying all this time?
Heighten research in the area of materials physics and chemistry
The first framework agreement was signed in 1975 between the CNRS and Rhône-Poulenc, whose chemicals business has since been incorporated into Solvay through a series of mergers and acquisitions. The aim was to strengthen collaboration, which up to then was ad hoc and occasional. Theses and contracts followed one after the other and twelve years later, the two partners joined forces again to create their first mixed laboratory in Montpellier, where industrial and academic researchers carry out research on organic derivatives of silicon.
Then, in the Polymers and Advanced Materials Laboratory in Lyon1 (LPMA), Solvay and the CNRS launched new research into materials. "Together, we studied the impact of reinforcements within polymers and elastomers. We wanted to understand what happens when you embed nano-sized amorphous silica grains in a rubber," explains Patrick Maestro. The knowledge gained is of particular interest to the tire industry. Indeed, integrating silica makes it possible to change the tire's properties (resistance, grip, etc.) and improve its energy efficiency.
Revealing the secrets of soft matter
On six occasions, the two partners adopted the mixed facility format in France and abroad (IRL). "They enable us to initiate long-term research on major fundamental themes that are upstream from our R&D. The ambition is to develop top-level skills and cutting edge techniques that will become the industrial methods of tomorrow," said Solvay's CSO. In the United States, the CNRS and its partner joined forces in the mid-1990s with Princeton University and then with the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) to work on soft matter2.
Here, researchers study the physics and chemistry of small polymer and surfactant formulations - compounds enabling the rheology of formulations to be controlled and, for example, the spreading of a liquid on surfaces to be facilitated. These products are now used in shampoos, cosmetics, lubricants, agrochemical formulations, etc. Notable research results include the development of block copolymers. These complex structures enable the specific properties of different monomers to be combined in a controlled manner, thus improving the properties obtained by surfactant formulations. "The cost of these block polymers had long been prohibitive, preventing products from emerging on the market. So it took many years of research to achieve the performance levels required to develop these block systems on a large scale," said Patrick Maestro.
Microfluidics: research that is taking off
In the early 2000s, the CNRS and Solvay were at the forefront of innovation in numerous fields. Microfluidics - dedicated to the study of fluid flow in microsystems - was then a young and promising discipline. The creation of the Laboratory of the Future3 contributed to popularising its application in the chemicals field. Miniaturised microfluidic tools reduce the amount of chemicals needed, multiply the number of possible experiments by factors of over one thousand, and increase productivity accordingly!
Flow, rheology, drying and dispersion problems... this method revolutionises practices by intensifying processes. For example, by having species react in the form of drops in microchannels, scientists characterise the kinetics of chemical reactions. The development of a rheometer on a chip is used for formulation problems. The advantage: the ability to measure the flow of complex fluids from a very small quantity of product (foams, surfactants, thickeners, etc.). More generally, this work has made it possible to establish phase diagrams of complex formulations, gaining a factor of 100 on productivity with no loss of precision.
“By 2030, the Solvay group wants to double its turnover from circular economy products. And we will only achieve this through new scientific developments.”
Solvay Chief Scientific Officer
Catalysing research in sustainable chemistry
Since the early 2010s, both partners have strengthened their research into sustainable chemistry. This is intended to be bio-based or recycled. It aims to discharge less effluent, while improving yields. But how? "Catalysts are used in 90% of industrial chemical processes. Making them more efficient reduces the overall environmental footprint of the reactions," says Patrick Maestro.
By placing catalysis at the heart of their partnership in China, the CNRS and Solvay have achieved numerous successes in reducing the environmental impact of the chemical industry. Researchers at the Eco-efficient Products & Processes Laboratory4 (E2P2L) have improved one of the key steps in the transformation of phenol into vanillin. This result directly benefits the company, a key player in the market for the production of the most important component in vanilla flavouring.
Furthermore, the chemical industry is taking off with the integration of new digital methods. Together with the Poitiers Institut de Chimie des Milieux et Matériaux5, E2P2L researchers were the first to design bio-based aromatic compounds using computer simulations. In addition, artificial intelligence tools can rapidly detect a promising catalyst or reaction by testing thousands of candidates virtually - a task that would otherwise be impossible to perform by hand in the laboratory.
An even greener future
“By 2030, the Solvay group wants to double its turnover from circular economy products," said Patrick Maestro. “And we will only achieve this through new scientific developments.” Advanced materials and formulations, respect for the environment, energy, and other research has much to contribute to the industry's goal of more sustainable chemistry.
Work on electrocatalysis, for example, will be essential to address the problems of hydrogen production. Knowledge of composite materials will be used to produce containers suitable for energy storage. Composite thermoplastics will make wind turbine blades lighter and easier to recycle. Finally, the chemicals industry could become a major player in recycling thanks to the emergence of chemical or biochemical solutions to treat complex polymers that are currently crushed and incinerated. Nearly 45 years after they first went into partnership, the CNRS and Solvay have always found new challenges to tackle and that's not going to stop any time soon!
1 Mixed facility closed in 2020
2 They created the equivalent of an International Research Laboratory (IRL): the Complex Fluid Laboratory, which became the Complex Assemblies of Soft Matter IRL in 2009 (closed in 2021) with the University of Pennsylvania.
3 CNRS/Solvay mixed facility/University of Bordeaux
4 CNRS/Solvay IRL/ENS Lyon/East China Normal University/East China University of Science and Technology/Fudan University
5 Mirror laboratory of the E2P2L IRL, with the Lille Unité de Catalyse et de Chimie du Solide