Somewhere in sweltering New Delhi, a family clusters around their brand-new air conditioner. As the frigid air chases away the oppressive heat, the parents become more productive, the children can focus on their studies, and the grandparents become less susceptible to heat-related illness. In the next seven years, 380 million Indians are expected to enter the global middle class, and, chances are, most of them will crave one of these inexpensive but hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-dependent air conditioning units. Chemists are working on ways to reduce their global warming potential.
Meanwhile, in an affluent suburb of Munich, an elderly man gets a hospital visit from his grandkids. His first-world lifestyle has resulted in a longer life than his father or grandfather would have ever enjoyed, but, in his later years, he has developed a cancer that is resistant to chemotherapy. Drug-delivery chemists are working on nanoparticle therapies to treat cases like his.
— James Canton, CEO of the Institute for Global Futures.
And somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, a little girl walks miles each day balancing a water jug on her head. For her farming family to escape extreme poverty, they’ll need better access to clean drinking water and to markets to sell their crops. Chemists and biologists are finding affordable ways for families like these to purify water and grow crops that can withstand the trip to distant markets.
Cleaner water, fuels, and energy; safer food; more effective medicines and medical devices; faster computers; stronger, lighter, and more efficient materials for everything from Range Rovers to rocket ships—these are the building blocks for a more prosperous global future. And the chemical industry strives to enable these innovations every day.
Supported by chemistry, innovations in public health, energy, materials, and more have played a big part in giving humans longer, safer, healthier, and easier lives than those of their ancestors a hundred years ago. But how can we sustain and improve the lives of not just the 7 billion people alive today, but also of the projected 9 billion who’ll be here by 2050? And how can we do it without upsetting our delicate ecosystem?
“We need a complete paradigm shift, and chemistry needs to help us get there,” says James Canton, CEO of the think tank Institute for Global Futures. “We need to challenge chemistry to help create a sustainable future, just like President Kennedy challenged the United States to go to the moon. And as the chemical industry helps address our grandest global challenges, it will also find a tremendous commercial opportunity.”
Serving an Urbanized World
To get a glimpse of a future that chemistry needs to serve, consider Lagos, Africa’s largest city and a mecca for striving Nigerians. The street markets thrum with entrepreneurial energy, the beach resorts and nightclubs buzz day and night, and a new district of luxury high-rises nears completion.
But Lagos is bursting at the seams. As the city grows by an estimated 2,000 residents a day, migrants have settled in a floating slum on a putrid lagoon. Running water and electricity are in short supply. The streets are routinely gridlocked, with commutes running two hours or more. And demand for infrastructure and services, public and private, will only increase.
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The population of Lagos has nearly doubled in the past decade and will likely double again by 2050. Ten more “megacities” like Lagos, with populations topping 10 million, will emerge by 2030—all of them in the developing world, where most people still live in the countryside and populations are growing the most quickly.
With its growing urban centers and youthful demographic, the developing world will double the world’s middle-class population to a projected 5 billion-plus members by 2030. That middle-class growth could spur massive demand, not just for consumer goods, but also for a wide range of public and private infrastructure—many of these critical products made possible by breakthroughs in chemistry.
Meanwhile, the already urbanized developed world will witness slower economic growth as its population plateaus. Still, an affluent but aging population is expected to drive new demand in areas such as health care, transportation, and advanced materials.
Chemistry will also help move the digital revolution forward. For example, the Internet of Things (IoT) increasingly depends on miniaturized chemical sensors. The next step may be nanoscale sensors, small enough to circulate within living bodies or mix into construction materials. Nanoscale sensors “could take medicine, energy efficiencies, and many other sectors to a whole new dimension,” according to a 2016 Scientific American article.
Similarly, chemistry may help usher in the next generation of computing. Computer-chip performance is no longer growing at the exponential rate predicted by Moore’s law, creating what Canton calls “a crisis” that could reduce the pace of innovation and economic growth. To counter, scientists are investigating materials such as graphene and phosphorus that could leave silicon in the dust.
In search of Breakthroughs
As a trained chemist, IBM scientist George Tulevski knows the science of chemistry will play a major role in creating a more prosperous and sustainable future. What’s less certain, though, is how the chemical industry will fit in. Will chemical companies be the future’s pioneers, or will the credit (and profits) go to entirely new kinds of companies?
Case in point: Climate change is arguably the greatest challenge—and opportunity—the chemical industry will face in coming years. On the one hand, the chemical industry (like almost every other) can take some blame for climate change: Fossil fuels make up nearly all the chemical industry’s feedstock, and chemical manufacturing produces greenhouse gas. On the other hand, chemistry plays a role in virtually every potential climate solution, from fuels to energy to building materials.
But many of the companies that attack these various problems with chemistry don’t consider themselves chemical companies per se. Really, many of today’s headline-grabbing innovations stem from nanotechnology and molecular biology. “If you go to the basics, then chemistry is about the manipulation of matter at the molecular level,” says Carsten Reinhardt, a chemistry historian at Germany’s Bielefeld University and a past president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. “That means chemistry is involved in so many different fields: biotech, molecular biology, nanotech, and others.”
“The problem for parts of the chemical industry,” Reinhardt adds, “is that it lost this innovative territory to other fields.” To stay relevant, he says, the industry will need to “remodel itself” by shifting to renewable feedstock, developing innovative products, confronting its ongoing public relations challenges, and possibly rethinking its entire structure.
Can the chemical giants that helped shape our modern lives help develop the disruptive innovations of the future? Consider the wave of mergers, spinoffs, and acquisitions that have run through the industry in recent years. Many chemical companies aim to bring chemists, biologists, and engineers together to work on new solutions in areas including agriculture, industrial bioscience, and materials. So, if microbes power tomorrow’s buildings and switchgrass fuels our cars, companies that leap eagerly across scientific boundaries will get the credit.
PRECIPITATING THE CONVERSATION
Is innovation still possible in the chemical industry?
I have heard people speculate that we can’t push chemistry much further. But we can. We have to. People want to live better lives no matter where they are. And those aspirations—those expectations—place demands on us, for more capabilities and more capacity. We need to unleash the power of new molecules and use new technology to move science forward. We have seen this take place in other spaces. Big data, for instance, can speed up research and help us solve problems that might have stumped us before.
We’re also finding ways to reboot older technologies so they meet new customer demands for more eco-friendly products. We took last-generation HFC refrigerants and did just that. Now our Opteon™ YF refrigerants deliver 99% lower global warming potential than previous-generation products.
What’s fueling innovation these days?
We’re seeing a big shift from mass production to mass customization. The idea is to personalize a product with scalable, cost-effective technology. That’s something Chemours already does: we codevelop applications with our customers to help them meet the needs of established as well as new and growing markets.
You’re seeing semiconductors get smaller, smarter, and faster, for instance. You can find our Teflon™ PTFE–based materials used in semiconductors; they enable this process through the unique properties of our fluoropolymers, so we’re helping make this progress possible.
How can chemical companies create an innovative culture?
Focus on how and whom you hire. Our people are the most vital element in chemistry—in any business, really. Make sure you recruit from different generations and from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. Chemours, for an example, is a strong proponent of women in STEM.
Consider adding different personalities to the mix; that’s another way to shake things up and point you to something new. And bring on people who are curious—passionate curiosity is what drives our company’s spirit of innovation.
And remember: diversity is good business. There is growing evidence to suggest that diverse companies actually perform better than nondiverse companies.*
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*Source: Harvard Business Review
Digitization: The new frontier
Increasingly, these product innovations also have a digital element, notes Brian David Johnson, futurist in residence at Arizona State University (and former in-house futurist at Intel). Tomorrow’s materials are as likely to be networked and interactive as they are renewable and durable.
Ultimately, digitization could transform manufacturing, which remains an important customer of the chemical industry. Fueled by innovations in robotics, 3-D printing, and the IoT, tomorrow’s manufacturing is likely to be more localized and customized to end-users’ needs. Adapting to this future may require chemical companies to shift their focus away from products and toward leveraging their expertise and relationships to create solutions, Johnson says.
If, for example, 3-D printers become as common as personal computers, “most chemical companies [would need to] shift from being principally suppliers of product to collaborators in innovation with their customers,” consulting firm PwC predicted in a 2015 report. “This is a path some companies, indeed, are already on.”
One potential reward: PwC contends “next-generation digitization” like the industrial IoT can improve chemical industry margins by up to 9%.
Keeping ahead of technologies like these and staying nimble will help the chemical industry lead the way. The coming years will bring unprecedented challenges to the globe, which chemistry can help solve, whether, for example, it’s finding affordable cooling systems that don’t contribute to global warming, life-saving medicines, or sustainable water supplies—giving the industry opportunity to achieve greater heights of relevance and recognition in the eyes of science, industry, policymakers, and the general public.
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ABOUT C&EN SPONSORED CONTENT
Sponsored content is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of C&EN’s editorial staff. It is authored by writers approved by the C&EN BrandLab and held to editorial standards expected in C&EN magazine stories, with the intent of providing valuable information to C&EN readers. This sponsored content feature has been produced with funding support from The Chemours Company.