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Good Prospects for the Chemical Sector

Green chemistry is driving transformation and startup opportunities

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... Prof. Matthias Drieß

Professor for Metal Organics and Inorganic Materials at TU Berlin and Chair of the Cluster of Excellence Unifying Concepts in Catalysis (UniCat)

The chemist and catalysis researcher Matthias Drieß is working to make science students more aware of startup opportunities earlier on.
Lupe

Mr. Drieß, will green chemistry change the sector's image?
Yes, I'm convinced of that because it's going to bring about a transformation in chemistry. Today, climate change, environmental protection and recycling call for more environmentally friendly and sustainable processes. It's called green chemistry because of its systemic, ecological approach. The whole system is taken into account, from manufacturing to the recycling of waste. Right from the start of all chemical processes, it means considering the entire life cycle of the substances used – including waste products. In green chemistry, you ask questions early on such as: Can we use water as a reaction medium in a conversion rather than benzene or ether? Can we avoid substances that cause problems further down the line – polluting the food chain, drinking water or the atmosphere – and need to be removed at considerable cost? The fewer pollutants we use at the beginning of the process, the easier and more cost-effective it will be to clean up at the end of it – making for a more environmentally friendly procedure overall.

That sounds logical and straightforward. Why are we only thinking of this now?
It sounds straightforward, but it isn't. In catalysis, as elsewhere, a lot of green processes have yet to be developed. In the Cluster of Excellence UniCat, we've made a start on this. We've observed and analyzed the individual steps in catalytic processes, and we can drastically improve on these from an environmental standpoint. The next step is to develop creative and innovative green chemistry procedures, for example in drug and material manufacturing.

What causes particular problems in recycling?
In our everyday lives, we use all kinds of artificial substances. Take silicone, for example. It's used in cosmetics, implants, plastic bowls, kitchen appliances and much more. These products contain artificial organosilicon compounds manufactured at high pressures and temperatures, consuming large amounts of energy and generating considerable costs. Organosilicon compounds do not occur in nature and so there is no natural mechanism of degradation. Our household waste can therefore remain intact for a very, very long time before decomposing. Developing some nifty catalytic reactions to break them down is an important goal. Today more than 250 million metric tons of polyethylene packaging is floating on the surface of the world's oceans, causing considerable damage to the environment and the food chain. We need many more procedures for eradicating existing pollutants, breaking them down into smaller parts and reusing them. An important aim is the systematic roll-out of environmentally friendly processes for producing easily biodegradable polymers, which can be reused, for example, in the manufacture of fertilizers. The focus is particularly on producing polymers from renewable sources and ensuring they are easily biodegradable without competing with food production. At UniCat we're exploring innovative ways of using catalysis to make new polymer materials from organic plant residues. If we can do this in a resource-efficient way, it protects the environment and the climate – in the same way that nature does.

People accuse the chemical industry of thinking more about profit than the environment.
It's not quite as black and white as that: actually there is a lot of awareness about sustainability in the industry, but of course money still needs to be made. The biggest obstacle is the lack of acceptance for new developments among established companies, as they mean more investment, and customers have to pay more for the same product. That's where the government, which is responsible for the bigger picture, needs to step in and lead the way. It might get put back further, but we'll only be successful if we look for solutions that are both sustainable and profitable - but the focus must be on the environment. Lots of great ideas from scientific research don't get put into practice because people in the industry are so risk averse. We need to enable young scientists to take their fresh ideas and set up their own businesses in niche markets where they can find potential clients. But we're still lacking the infrastructure for this.

We definitely have the right attitude at UniCat and its affiliated graduate school BIG-NSE, but we're losing the best-trained people and the bright ideas further down the line because there's hardly any lab space in Berlin for the startup phase and the chemical industry is small. Because of the lack of infrastructure for testing out new chemical companies, we are missing opportunities to generate well-paid jobs. A great idea would be an incubator center – the sort of space where you can go through the whole startup phase – from the idea through to market analysis and onto testing. A university where a Cluster of Excellence such as UniCat has successfully existed for ten years is an ideal place to launch this idea. It offers diverse expertise, analytical methods, fluid knowledge sharing and disruptive ideas.

TU Berlin already has a successful Centre for Entrepreneurship...
Yes, the support for entrepreneurs is excellent here. But chemists don't have enough labs. They're expensive and take up a lot of room. We would need a building complex where we could bring together advice, labs and offices, so that there would be a critical mass of people needed to ensure exchange. We definitely have the potential for this. 60% of German startups in the chemical industry already have a base in Berlin because the universities here produce high-caliber graduates, and in some labs university teaching staff provide support in the incubation phase. But much more capacity needs to be made available. We are currently not only losing young entrepreneurs, who are turning their backs on Berlin and Germany, but also the good ideas. The ideas of graduates who are going into established companies that sometimes let improved processes from the existing portfolio gather dust on the shelf. With a startup center for new chemical firms, we can take our fate into our own hands and lay the ground for a fertile new scene of blossoming chemical companies.

Interview by Patricia Pätzold

Patricia Pätzold, TU intern, 16 December 2016

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