A curious observer would have noted something odd about past Consumer Electronics Shows. CES is, of course, the closest thing the tech world has to an annual pilgrimage. Tens of thousands of people descend on Las Vegas the first week in January, pack themselves into the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center, and wonder at the latest in consumer electronics wizardry. Until this year, many of those CES pilgrims wandered in search of a decent signal to share the good news. The problem wasn’t just electrical. It was chemical, too. The dirty secret of CES is that the world’s primary festival of human electronic interconnection had easily overwhelmed its technical ability to connect to the outside world. Ironic.
That all changed in December 2016, when the Las Vegas Convention Center upgraded its wireless service just in time for the 2017 show. Now the facility boasts one of the largest distributed antenna systems in the U.S. With the boosting power of 14 cell towers, the property-wide installation is equipped to serve 100,000-plus delegates simultaneously at faster download speeds than most corporate networks. It’s at the apex of today’s technology and ready to be upgraded to the 5G wireless standard already on the horizon. What many don’t know is that the new digital installation depends on advanced fluoropolymers to achieve the connection improvements that CES delegates experienced for the first time this year as well as the astonishing leaps to come.
As radical as this change was for those accustomed to the connectivity frustrations of years past, it wasn’t really a breakthrough. Instead, the Las Vegas Convention Center skillfully applied the best of today’s technology to an urgent market problem and, along the way, set itself up to be ahead of the next challenge. It was a masterful application of incremental innovation to achieve a significant improvement in performance.
The chemical industry, too, is paying close attention to opportunities for incremental innovation. We’ve already made and enjoyed the easy chemical breakthroughs, and now we need to apply the same diligent discovery ethic to reinvention. Today’s chemical and materials science advancements are less the result of fortuitous, blue-sky lab work and more the outcome of disciplined development pipelines that tweak and build on well-understood chemistry to meet emerging market needs.
There will always be the need for new molecule development. The world still needs as-yet undiscovered polymers and compounds. But the reinvention and reapplication of proven chemistry can solve many current and future problems. Disruptive innovation, such as the coming era of 5G wireless connectivity, often depends on established materials.
Established chemistry and future breakthroughs
Meeting emerging customer needs is more complicated than just asking partners what they want to buy. An innovative chemical company needs to learn the strategies and objectives of its customers and emerging consumer demands to anticipate future needs. That intelligence gathering is part of a multipronged approach that includes close study and analysis of mega-market trends, partnerships with academic institutions, participation in industry conferences, and other vehicles for keeping pace with the future and driving innovation forward. Outfitted with this information, a technology road map gets customer and supplier together in a shared R&D process that meets future needs, often through new uses of existing products.
By identifying a critical emerging market with strong future implications—energy storage—The Chemours Company, for example, created new life for its NafionTM line of membranes and dispersions for the chlor-alkali industry.
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That’s not the only time-tested product due for reinvention. TeflonTM (another Chemours brand) is at the heart of the build-out of advanced communications networks. In the developed world, most people already enjoy LTE cell connections, which are lightning fast compared to the mobile data systems that preceded them. The technology the Las Vegas Convention Center anticipated, 5G, could end up as much as 12 times as fast as the best LTE networks. That’s faster than most wired broadband connections.
What does this have to do with chemistry? As it happens, it has everything to do with the science. It turns out that Sen. Ted Stevens wasn’t entirely wrong when he said the internet is “a series of tubes.” Achieving 5G speeds means all those tubes—transmission wires and fiber optics—will need significant upgrading to handle higher data transmission rates and performance levels. Premium, polymer-based cable jackets and innovative insulations are needed to make 5G infrastructure more than just a set of engineering diagrams. High bit-rate communications would not be possible without the low dielectric properties of fluoro-based resins such as TeflonTM. In fact, such polymers are an integral ingredient in the whole 5G network infrastructure, from circuit boards to radio frequency antennae.
Rapidly evolving demand can inspire the development of profitable new uses and applications from existing products. Other stimuli for the reformulation or adaptation of existing products include regulatory changes and increasing interest in more sustainable and eco-friendly solutions. Even long-abandoned chemistries are being resurrected. For example, sustainability imperatives are now fostering a revival of Industrial Revolution-era carbohydrates, such as wood, corncobs, sugarcane, and other cellulose-based materials, for replacement industrial uses.
By closely following marketplace trends and shifts, companies across the chemical and larger scientific and engineering spectrum with assets already on hand can meet challenges, make progress, and boost the bottom line without having to start from scratch.
An opportunity to change the world
Innovative new approaches can help companies navigate changing market dynamics and revolutionize product lines, such as in the growing field of materials science. In this interdisciplinary approach, scientists seek to change the microstructure of a given material relative to its macromolecular physical and chemical properties. This allows them to then tailor the properties to create custom, or even new, materials with specific properties for specific uses.
Chemistry is front and center among the different disciplines in the field, which encompasses wide-ranging materials and applications, including rubber, metal, plastics, ceramics, paint, and biomedicine.
Typical mobile speeds for every cellular generation standard
Chemical engineer Ross Kozarsky heads up global research of materials practice at Boston-based research and advisory firm Lux Research. As he explains, current market pressures, such as increased merger and acquisition activity among commodity chemical companies, are forging, if not forcing, bold innovation.
That means customers and consumers alike can look forward to bold developments. For instance, 5G communications will change our world. The blistering speed of the protocol makes a mobile internet of things—a fully connected world—a real possibility. As Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, writes, “Advanced digital networks will bring together a system that connects billions of devices and sensors enabling advances in health care, education, resource management, transportation, agriculture, and many other areas” (2016). Bringing that to fruition will require new partnerships, new organizations, and a new communications grid foundation. While the leaps from 3G to 4G and from 4G to LTE were great, they were relatively simple steps. If the prognosticators are right, by 2020, potential uses of 5G networks will spur the distribution of the communications infrastructure into heretofore unconnected corners of our lives.
PRECIPITATING THE CONVERSATION
What drives Chemours to reinvent products?
We refer regularly to our mission of being a Higher Value Chemistry company. This mission springs from a foundation of proven products and technology. But it also means we neither produce nor reinvent products—no matter how unusual or interesting—just because we can. Instead, we work to develop products that offer value and reflect our commitment to being Customer Centered, one of our established company values. Within Chemours, we’re the strongest advocates—the greatest champions—of our customers’ needs and goals.
How do you go about reinventing products?
We believe, first, in being listeners. We listen carefully to our customers. And, together with our customers, we also listen to their customers to determine how our chemistry can make their products better. We achieve this through our ability to expand our core technology into new applications and adjacent markets.
Second, we strive to be forward thinkers. We believe it’s important to devote time and effort to anticipate market trends and the regulatory environments that affect them. Such thinking ultimately serves our customers and enables them to get ahead of the changing environment.
Combining listening and forward thinking at Chemours has led to several reinvented products. For instance, we originally developed Nafion™ in the 1960s as a fuel cell membrane. Today, Nafion™ membranes store alternative energy. And Viton™ fluoroelastomers—originally launched in 1957 for the aerospace industry—have become an essential ingredient to make wearable devices more durable.
Who in your company leads the way for innovation?
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.
We listen to our own, outside-the-box thinkers: our insatiably curious Chemours employees. Collective Entrepreneurship is another one of our core company values. It means we want to treat the company as our own. It means all ideas will be considered.
So as we strive to be a Higher Value Chemistry company, we’ve found we’re most guided by listening, forward thinking, collective entrepreneurship, and customer-centeredness. They’re powerful forces.
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A new era of delivering progress
Chance will always play a role in chemistry, and there may very well be more great, unexpected discoveries to come. However, serendipity has less of a role to play in delivering improved living standards than it did in the past. With all that is at stake for the developed and emerging worlds alike, chemistry industry players have to take the surer path: a purposeful, incremental, business-driven approach to meeting market challenges and answering customer needs.
Iterative innovation may be less spectacular than the accidental discoveries of the past. It’s doubtful that anyone will spin tales about the consistent, incremental build-out of next-generation communications the way they do about the famous lab error that brought the world TeflonTM. But the work of today’s chemists and chemical industry is every bit as challenging and impactful. We’re on the cusp of another phase change in the way we live and communicate. Bringing that future to pass will keep chemists and other materials scientists busy for years.
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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.