Rhodia focuses R&D in sustainability

Green Pull

06 October 2008 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Rhodia scientists are looking for innovative solutions to answer customers' sustainability challenges 

INNOVATION FOR France-based specialty chemical firm Rhodia is becoming synonymous with "green," as its marketing pull is increasingly being felt by the company's researchers and chemists around the world.

About 30% of Rhodia's sales are generated by products that offer sustainable solutions, according to the company. Rhodia expects its research and development (R&D) teams to continue its partnership with major customers in developing products and processes that have ever-greater sustainability factors.

"Sustainable development is not only a fundamental responsibility but also a strategy for growth," said chairman and CEO Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, in the company's 2007 Sustainable Development Report. "We are determined to intensify our commitment to this strong trend in our markets in the next few years and make it one of our driving forces for growth."

Some of the projects in the pipeline at Rhodia's Center for Research & Technology in Bristol, Pennsylvania, US (CRTB) clearly demonstrate Rhodia's commitment to the green strategy. Executives at the facility cite examples such as environmentally friendly solvents and surfactants catalyzers to reduce vehicle emissions natural-based formulations in cosmetics and personal care biopolymers to increase oil well production efficiencies and other additives to enable certain chemicals to be regulatory-compliant.

"Everyone is looking today at sustainable products and clearly our societal needs are driving most of the development," says John Cherkauskas, vice president of Rhodia CRTB. "Our customers' focus is not just on cost and functional performance anymore, but the sustainability aspect of a material as well. Sometimes all three go hand in hand."

The three-year-old CRTB facility, which employs approximately 100 people, primarily holds Rhodia's Novecare and Silcea business developments, says Cherkauskas. The facility conducts a significant proportion of Rhodia's global Novecare R&D, while the Silcea enterprise opened its new alumina washcoat laboratory in January.

Rhodia acquired its alumina washcoat business in August 2007 from US-based specialty chemical firm W.R. Grace and has now integrated it into the Silcea business, which also includes the company's rare earth materials and high-performance silica for tires.

Both rare earths and aluminas are important components in automotive catalytic converters, says Drew Polli, senior laboratory manager, alumina washcoat.

Most of the rare earth developments are in Rhodia's Paris, France, R&D facility, but research on aluminas is centered at the CRTB. Demand for automotive emission controls has been increasing worldwide, says Polli, adding that catalysts are becoming an important factor in sustainable development within the automotive market.

In late August, Rhodia opened its new alumina washcoat pilot plant in Cincinnati, Ohio, US, which aims to improve the company's global market position in the competitive automotive catalyst industry. Rhodia holds a large share of the automotive alumina market, says Polli.

"The new pilot plant will enable the Silcea business to have greater agility in production, sampling of development materials and new alumina product scale-up," he adds.

Including Rhodia's diphenols business, the Silcea enterprise accounted for 15% of the company's overall €4.7bn ($6.9bn) in sales last year. Aside from catalytic converters, some of the business's growing green market developments involve low-energy tires and energy-saving light bulbs.

The beauty of sustainability

Rhodia Novecare, which took €936m in global sales last year, is the company's second-largest business, with R&D expenditures accounting for 3-4% of sales.

Under Novecare, 36% of sales are from what the company calls the performance solutions category, which includes oil field and water, agrochemical specialties, phosphorus derivative specialties, and textile additives. Around 33% is in industrial formulations targeting metal treatment, water-borne coatings and a number of niche markets while 31% involve the home and personal care category.

"The majority of CRTB activities are dedicated to Novecare," says Mo Hashem, senior principal scientist and CRTB safety coordinator. "What makes us different from other research centers, especially in the Novecare business, is our dedicated customer service." Customer support accounts for 30% of CRTB activities, he adds.

In home and personal care, Rhodia's major product and technology focus is on surfactants, polymers, phosphates and hydrocolloids, says Pascal Herve, laboratory manager, home and personal care at the CRTB.

"Our approach is two-fold: to provide key customers with creative, high performance solutions and to design sustainable development solutions in partnership with our customers to boost their expansion," says Herve.

The green profile and renewable raw material sources are especially becoming important in personal care products, adds Jim Griffin, technical service manager at CRTB home and personal care.

"We have very strong activities toward greener materials, but that doesn't mean they just have to be biodegradable or from natural sources. The ecotoxicity profile has to be the first thing to consider," says Griffin.

In April, Rhodia launched for the personal care market its biodegradable Miracare Plaisant, a sulfate-free and plant-based surfactant blend for cleansing applications such as body washes, shampoos, facial cleansers and liquid soaps. At the same time, it launched its Mirasheen Star pearlizer, which is said to enhance the pearlescent appearance and texture of personal care products, increasing their sensory benefits.

performance and safety

Rhodia's developments of eco-friendly and cost-effective surfactant technologies are not limited to the home and personal care sectors.

In the agrochemical market, Rhodia presented its new bioactivator, Geronol CF/AR, a surfactant-based system for water-soluble actives in concentrated glyphosate formulations and co-herbicides, this year.

The bio-activator has an excellent toxicity and eco-toxicity profile, says Krishnamurthy Murthy, laboratory manager, CRTB agrochemicals. "Most of the green developments in agrochemicals are geared toward toxicology and ecotoxicity profile," says Murthy.

"Our customers are asking if we can help formulate safer alternatives, especially those that are not aquatic toxic. Since the agrochemical industry is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), even the inerts and additives are being scrutinized - not just the actives," he adds.

Development of eco-friendly, green solvents, meanwhile, is also a significant development project under Rhodia Novecare. In April, the company started a new manufacturing facility in Santo Andre, Brazil, for the production of Rhodiasolv IRIS, the latest addition to Rhodia's newly developed eco-friendly solvent product line.

The biodegradable, nonflammable and low-volatile organic compound (VOC) dibasic ester solvent is designed to be used in applications such as industrial cleaning, foundry resins, and paints and coatings formulations.

Rhodia says the investment will increase the company's global dibasic ester solvents capacity and will meet the rapidly growing demand for sustainable solvents.

"The green trend is big for both our PSS (polymer system specialties) and industrial businesses - not just because of the regulatory push, but because of driven demand for sustainable options," says Jose Ruiz, laboratory manager, PSS/Industrial at CRTB.

"In waterborne coatings - a market under our PSS business - our customers are looking for lower VOCs, especially in California, and alternatives to alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), especially in Europe where APEs are banned," he adds.

Ruiz also notes some of the green requests in developing new metal treatment additives, such as those free of sulfur-based, chlorine-based or chromium-based formulations additives that are more eco-friendly and with lower energy benefits and additives that produce less corrosion.


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By: Doris de Guzman
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