Celebrating ten years of successful industrial-academic collaboration at E2P2L

The Eco-Efficient Products & Processes Laboratory (E2P2L) is an international research lab created in 2011 in Shanghai by Solvay and French public research organization, CNRS. Focusing on sustainable chemistry and innovation-driven by digital technology, the lab’s researchers have consistently and successfully developed alternatives to petroleum-based ingredients and catalysis. Catalysis itself is a legacy domain for Solvay and one of the most efficient ways to reduce the chemical industry’s environmental footprint: catalysts are used in 90% of industrial chemical processes and making them more efficient reduces energy and resource consumption. What’s more, electro-catalysis is a major subject for high-priority domains such as hydrogen production and energy storage.

As a result, over its decade of existence, E2P2L has delivered numerous notable achievements to reduce the environmental impact of the chemical industry, such as:

  • Improving a key step in the transformation of phenol into vanillin by developing a catalyst that reduces energy consumption while yielding a much higher-value intermediate
  • Obtaining four million euros in funding to develop cutting-edge technologies such as interfacial catalysis and catalysts guided by artificial intelligence
  • Enabling the replacement of a catalyst with a non-toxic alternative in a manufacturing plant
  • Developing bio-sourced aromatic compounds with the help of computer simulations, in collaboration with the IC2MP research institute in Poitiers (France)

About that last achievement, “it was the first time we worked using that method, and it earned us a scientific publication and several patents,” explains Stéphane Streiff, the director of E2P2L since 2017. “It’s a perfect example of how fundamental research and business needs can be successfully combined and how modeling and simulation can speed up innovation while saving resources.”

E2P2L anniversary symposium
E2P2L celebrated its ten-year anniversary with a hybrid virtual and live symposium.

From research and development to scientific success

The creation of E2P2L isn’t an isolated endeavor. It follows Solvay’s legacy commitment to bringing the world’s brightest scientific minds together, which was initiated by none other than Ernest Solvay himself. True to this tradition, E2P2L was born from discussions between Solvay and CNRS initiated in 2008 to duplicate in China what was successfully being done in Europe through a long-standing collaboration between the two organizations. Three years later, the new lab was inaugurated.

Combining the strengths of industrial and fundamental science to accelerate the development of chemical solutions for a better world has been a focus of Solvay’s for a long time, so it was only natural to develop it in such an important market as China. As for CNRS, E2P2L remains to this day its only research facility in the country.

The lab is located in Solvay’s Shanghai research facility, where it hosts an international staff of about 20 in-house scientists and just as many Ph.D. and post-doc researchers, funded by CNRS and other partners. It has partnerships with half a dozen universities in France, China, and collaborates with many more around the world. “We are a link between our customers and the academic world,” sums up Stéphane. “Our teams work on subjects that come from both sides: the business with industrial issues to solve and university labs that have a solution which could be applied in the industrial world.”

The result? Numerous publications in scientific journals and around 15 patents are registered every year. “That’s significant for a team of our size,” boasts Stéphane. “Working with CNRS provides us with the long-term vision of academic researchers, which we wouldn’t necessarily have alone, and makes it possible to develop solutions in record time.

“E2P2L is a link between our customers and the academic world. Our teams work on challenging subjects coming from both sides: the business with industrial issues to solve and university labs that have a solution which could be applied in the industrial world.”

Stéphane Streiff, E2P2L director, Solvay

Accelerating and digitizing chemical research

On 14 December 2021, the 10th anniversary of E2P2L was celebrated with a symposium gathering many of its stakeholders, in virtual form due to Covid precautions. “But it was important to mark the date anyway and reinforce the bonds that unite us,” says Stéphane.

E2P2L’s work extends beyond analog, brick-and-mortar chemistry. It uses digital technologies such as molecular modeling and artificial intelligence (AI) to accelerate and optimize research. For example, digitally simulating thousands of reactions allows for the quick detection of those most likely to succeed, an impossible task if each one had to be tested in the lab.

When a leading chemical company and cutting-edge academic research lab join forces using the latest digital tools, the sky's the limit for the future sustainability of chemical solutions.