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Tweaks, Not Bounds

Following an age of big breakthroughs, old-line industries advance today through incremental innovations in chemistry

by Rick Mullin
October 11, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 41

Credit: CIBA
Credit: CIBA

The latter half of the 20th century witnessed fundamental changes in chemistry for manufacturing processes. The development of synthetic fibers, for instance, led to new dyeing chemistries. Revolutionary changes in production practices and the advent of environmental regulations caused the demise of some basic chemistry. These changes also fostered fundamentally new chemicals and materials with better environmental and performance characteristics.

But the 20th century is over. At this point, with few exceptions, the chemicals used to color, condition, adhere, and coat the products we use every day are pretty much set in stone. And if they have not already crossed the line from

high-performance specialty to low-priced commodity, Asian producers will likely accelerate that transition. Environmental regulation and registration efforts will take more chemicals out of the toolbox, no doubt, even as they increase the challenge of introducing entirely new materials.

As such, chemical suppliers are turning to innovative service strategies. This, in turn, is putting them back to work in the lab--frequently in collaboration with customers--to fine-tune existing processes.

Price premiums for high-end performance are beginning to stick. Here and there, something new is being added, even for the most mature industries. Specialty chemical strategies for the 21st century are clearly emerging in these basic industries, as illustrated by the following articles on chemicals for concrete, textiles, paper, and leather.


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