Polyamides are the most common type of engineered polymer, and are made primarily from fossil-based resources. Today many industries—like electrical goods, electronics, automotive, sporting goods, and agriculture—are seeking new biosourced polyamides.
The Polywood project aims to develop biosourced polyamides from sustainable resources that do not compete with food crops. Wood is one such resource. Therefore the project will look at ways to create new polyamides from the sugars in wood used to make paper pulp.
Because the hemicellulose in wood will serve as the main raw material for new, more sustainable chemical compounds, the project will also offer substantial economic benefits for the European paper industry.
Rhodia is spearheading this €5.8 million project, which brings together a total of twelve partners including three corporations, six small- to medium-sized businesses, and three research organizations.
Today indoor air quality is much poorer than outdoor air quality—but we spend 90% of our time in indoor environments. According to the World Health Organization, one out of every five people has at some point felt the effects of indoor air pollution.
The Cov-KO project will tackle indoor air quality—a pressing societal, economic, and public health issue—by developing safe indoor air treatment devices that help remove chemical pollutants and microorganisms like bacteria, mold, and viruses from indoor air. The devices will target the new construction and renovation market, with a particular focus on spaces like locker rooms, waiting rooms, museums, and movie theaters.
The project will also entail drafting a proposed EU standard for the in-situ testing of air treatment systems.
This €3.2 billion project is being led by BMES; project partners include two corporations, five small- to medium-sized businesses, and three research organizations.
Competitive cluster Axelera, which specializes in green chemistry, brings together leaders from industry, research, and education from across the Rhône-Alpes region. Since 2005 the cluster has been contributing actively to the development of an international-caliber scientific and industrial ecosystem to address today’s environmental challenges. With 250 members and 157 certified R&D programs representing a total investment of €489 million, the cluster is a major innovation driver. We spoke with the cluster’s director, Virginie Pevere, about what the future holds.
Axelera is positioned at the crossroads of chemistry and the environment. What does this mean in practical terms?
The world is currently facing unprecedented societal and environmental challenges. We would like to help find solutions by developing a more socially- and environmentally-responsible chemical industry. We aim to do this by addressing the industry’s economic, environmental, and societal impacts. This means boosting performance and productivity, minimizing the industry’s environmental footprint, and building awareness of the industry’s work. Our strategy focuses on five pillars: the chemical plant of the future; environmental conservation; materials recycling and recyclability; plant-based chemistry; and green chemistry for industrial applications ranging from sustainable construction to transportation.
Our work on the chemical plant of the future involves developing eco-efficient processes that use safer, more powerful reactions to minimize the environmental effects. This is in response to a real need expressed by chemical companies. We feel that tomorrow’s chemical plants will be smaller, more energy-efficient (or will use alternative energy sources like biomass), less resource-intensive, and will generate less waste and wastewater. Our concept has earned the “Institute of Excellence” certification from the French government’s carbon-free energy program.
What else is the cluster working on?
We are also working on recycling, with a focus on reuse as a way to minimize the consumption of non-renewable resources. For example, we are developing a complete recycling chain for electrical and electronic equipment waste, from collection and sorting to treatment and recycling. We are also looking at ways to recycle rare earth metals due to society’s increasing dependence on these raw materials. In terms of environmental conservation, we are developing new water, air, and soil treatment technologies. One of our plant-based soil remediation projects has already achieved excellent results. Wastewater treatment and sludge recycling are other fields where we have developed innovative processes and compounds that limit odors and gas emissions. Our plant-based chemistry program is exploring applications for wood*—a bioresource we are particularly interested in. Linen fiber is another resource that has led to the development of new materials. Cluster members are also developing new materials for more sustainable construction. These include lighting components and less-polluting materials for building interiors*. Our members are also looking at how to use organic polymers to build lighter structures for transportation applications. At Axelera we adopt a holistic approach; we are always on the lookout for the best possible solution—or the best possible compromise—for a given problem or industry need.
What does Axelera offer its members in terms of shared resources?
We have a collaborative platform called Axel’One with shared office space, services, and staff. The goal is to give our member businesses the support they need to successfully complete their R&D and innovation projects, all the way through to technology transfer. Axel’One focuses on high-performance, low-environmental-footprint materials and the industrial-scale rollout of eco-efficient processes. Our members also have access to another platform, Provademse, for eco-tech and clean-tech projects. This platform focuses on the sustainable management of waste, water, raw materials, and energy in industrial and urban areas where the impact of human activity is particularly heavy. These two platforms should be a boon to Grenoble-Isère, which, with its inherent diversity and rich business and research environment, is an excellent place for the cluster to be.
* See sidebars
Despite an extremely competitive global market, France’s chemical industry—Europe’s second-largest producer and the world’s fifth-largest—has carved out an enviable position. The chemical industry plays a key role in France’s economy, with some 178,000 people working for more than 850 chemical companies of over 20 employees each. The Rhône-Alpes region is France’s leading chemical producer, and is home to 20% of the country’s researchers and 25% of its R&D spending. And Grenoble-Isère is a leading contributor to the region’s flourishing chemical industry, with three chemical parks employing more than 5,000 people, solid risk management expertise, and recognized know-how in the production of a wide range of compounds.
One of the key differentiators of Grenoble-Isère’s chemical industry is its diversity, in terms of both the chemical companies located in the area and the variety of products they make. Most of the world’s leading chemical companies—including Arkema, Solvay-Rhodia, Air Liquide, Vencorex, and Bluestar Silicones—have operations in Grenoble-Isère, and the area is also home to a slate of dynamic, innovative small- and medium-sized businesses like Finorga-Novasep, Stepan Europe, Condat, and RSA le Rubis. Regardless of their size or footprint, all of these companies benefit from a prime location in the birthplace of France’s chemical industry—the area around Lyon and Grenoble—and nearly two centuries of expertise.
Integrated production and shared services for enhanced safety and cost savings
Grenoble-Isère’s chemical companies boast a diversified product portfolio (see sidebar, right), cutting across organic, inorganic, and specialty chemicals addressing a broad range of markets that includes healthcare, transportation, automotive, animal feed, and agriculture. What is perhaps most remarkable is the way that Grenoble-Isère’s chemical parks have created synergies to efficiently supply their companies with essential raw materials and utilities.
The Grenoble chemical park-located at the city of Pont-de-Claix near Grenoble-, originally built for chlorine production, has successfully expanded into more complex compounds. “The operations at Pont-de-Claix are highly integrated around the production of chlorine, which is also used to make both caustic soda and hydrogen. All these chemicals are generated and used at the park, practically in real-time. That means the park makes almost all its own raw materials,” said Patrick Pouchot, Head of Communications at Vencorex.By vertically integrating the production of many of its chemicals, the park is able to limit the storage and transportation of dangerous substances for the seven companies at the park and their 800 employees. In addition to supplying raw materials, Vencorex—the chemical park’s anchor member—also manages safety, health, environmental, laboratory, and catering services for the other businesses on site, making their operations both safer and more cost-effective.
Pont-de-Claix’s shared services are also available to companies at a second chemical park in nearby Jarrie. The Jarrie park is home to several chemical producers, including industry giant Arkema, which operates one of the world’s largest hydrogen peroxide plants on site, and RSA le Rubis, which manufactures sapphire monocrystals and synthetic rubies.
The Rhône-Alpes region is also home to France’s largest chemical park, Roches-Roussillon. This 150-hectare park, which was initially owned by Rhône-Poulenc and later Rhodia, has been a multi-company site for more than two decades. Like Pont-de-Claix and Jarrie, the Roches-Roussillon park also offers shared services; these are managed by Osiris, a French Economic Interest Group set up specifically for this purpose. The park’s raw materials are supplied by pipeline from nearby plants, as well as by river and rail—the park boasts a port on the Rhône and a rail terminal. Osiris also manages the site’s utilities, waste and wastewater treatment, safety and security, environmental monitoring, maintenance, and equipment inspection. This broad slate of services lets the park’s sixteen companies focus on their core business, giving them a key competitive advantage in a tough global market.
Synergies that attract international investment
Foreign businesses have flocked to Grenoble-Isère’s chemical parks, attracted by the competitiveness-enhancing synergies they have to offer. Several noteworthy companies have set up operations in the area over the past few years: Chinese chemical giant ChemChina (140,000 employees worldwide and €26 billion of revenue) has invested €110 million in its Roches-Roussillon subsidiary, Adisseo, over the past three years, and plans to invest an additional €140 million over the next three. Adisseo (€1.2 billion of revenue) is a recognized expert in animal feed and is the world’s second-leading producer of methionine, an amino acid used in poultry, pig, and ruminant feed. The company also makes vitamin A and formulates and distributes a complete line of products for livestock breeders.
PTT Global Chemical, Thailand’s largest petrochemical company ($15 billion of revenue in 2010), recently expanded into Pont-de-Claix with the acquisition of a majority stake in a joint venture with Sweden-based Perstorp, which already had operations in Grenoble-Isère. The joint venture, Vencorex, produces and sells aromatic isocyanates, a raw material used in the manufacture of soft polyurethane foams and aliphatic isocyanates—key ingredients in paints and coatings. Vencorex will soon invest more than €150 million to upgrade its production facilities at Pont-de-Claix as part of a broader plan to boost the company’s R&D capacity, make its production facilities more competitive, and gain market share.
Last but not least, competitive cluster Axelera (see interview in this issue), the world’s only green chemistry cluster, will spur further growth in a vibrant industry that has been growing steadily for decades. The world’s population is growing, creating new societal, environmental, and economic challenges—and Grenoble-Isère’s chemical industry is poised to play a key role in developing innovative solutions for this changing world.
The Grenoble chemical park
The Jarrie chemical park
The Roches-Roussillon chemical park
Well worth a closer look, Grenoble-Isère’s rich historic and cultural heritage includes defensive fortifications from the Middle Ages, religious buildings, and Renaissance-era dwellings. The two-thousand-year history of the chateau at Vizille—one of the area’s most emblematic monuments—includes a pivotal meeting in July 1788 that shaped the French Revolution. The chateau at Sassenage, a superb example of 17th-century French architecture, boasts beautifully-landscaped grounds. And the chateau at Le Touvet, originally built as a fortress in the Middle Ages, was expanded in the 18th century with beautiful architectural elements that reflect the way the local nobility lived at that time. The chateau’s five-hectare grounds, which were designed in 1750, are replete with manicured gardens, topiaries, and water features. One thing that all of these monuments have in common is their exceptional surroundings—Grenoble-Isère’s legendary alpine landscapes. And they are the perfect starting point for a tour of the area’s 800 churches, temples, chapels, priories, and monasteries.
The Musée de Grenoble is currently running a temporary exhibit on Die Brücke (“The Bridge”), a German avant-garde movement that was an early forerunner to 20th-century expressionism.
A reflection of the radical movements that swept Dresden, Germany, and all of Europe at the start of the 20th century, Die Brücke was founded in 1905 by four students—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff—who shared the same unconventional outlook. Die Brücke artists eschewed traditional academic styles and embraced influences ranging from Van Gogh and Munch to the primitive arts. They used bright colors and bold drawing techniques to express strong emotion as directly as possible through free, instinctive, and exalted artistic creation. Their works sowed the seeds of a movement that would later come to be known as expressionism.
While the exhibit mainly features works on paper, Die Brücke artists were also prolific makers of woodcut prints—a medium to which they gave a new dimension. Often compared to the Fauvist movement in France, German expressionism revolutionized 20th-century art. The exhibit will run until June 17, 2012.
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