Innovation Awards: Cabot takes the plaudits for aerogel

18 October 2013 17:18  [Source: ICB]

The winners in the ICIS Innovation Awards 2013 can now be revealed. The successful entries cover a diverse array of innovative products and processes, but the overall winner was a real stand-out – offering scope for huge energy savings in buildings and construction

Energy efficiency and bio-based materials technologies came very much to the fore in this year’s ICIS Innovation Awards, sponsored overall by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants for the first time. Of the 12 shortlisted entries, no fewer than half offered innovations in these two areas.

The stand-out winner for 2013, unanimously acclaimed by the panel of six leading industry judges (see below), is Cabot Corporation for its development of silica-based aerogel particles. These offer huge potential to 
improve the insulation values of a whole range of building materials. This innovation also won the category for Best Environmental Benefit, sponsored again this year by US-based chemical distributor U.S. Chemicals.

The judges were impressed with the novelty of the innovation and the potential of the environmental benefits arising from the use of aerogels. Neil Checker, partner at sponsor Roland Berger, said he believed such a silica-based 
approach has not been highlighted in insulation applications before. And AkzoNobel’s Klaas Kruithof commented that in his experience, the manufacturing process is a difficult one to perfect. He added that AkzoNobel itself is already looking at the impact of this type of technology in coatings, to improve not only thermal insulation value but also fire resistance due to intumescent properties.

Cabot has been developing the technology for around 10 years (see page 5), and offers two product lines, Lumira and Enova, of what it claims is the “lightest and best insulating solid in the world”. Each hydrophobic aerogel particle consists of more than 90% air contained in a structure that prevents heat transfer. They can be incorporated in a range of building 
materials, notably plaster, boards, daylighting systems, tensile roofing and coatings.

Says Cabot: “These products are key enablers in support of efforts to meet even the most stringent regional and industry standards and energy codes. In new construction, from stadiums to high-rise buildings, these universally applicable solutions significantly improve thermal efficiency and indoor air quality... [and] in renovation and historical building preservation, aerogel allows insulation updates with only minor disruption and no expansion of the building footprint.”

Cabot is already working with a number of partners in Europe, where it makes the aerogel, and the US to commercialise the technology. These include Germany’s Sto (itself a previous winner of an ICIS Innovation Award) and Fixit, Sweden’s Rockwool International, and US-based companies Tnemec, Birdair, Wasco and TGP, among others.

The focus on energy conservation in buildings, in the US, Europe and even China, would suggest Cabot’s aerogel has plenty of market to aim at. Around 40% of the world’s energy is consumed in buildings where we live and work– and countries are developing targets to reduce usage by as much as 20% by 2020 in some cases. The chemical industry is poised to play a significant role here, with polystyrene and polyurethane insulation blocks and foams, mineral wools and fillers, and now aerogel particles.

Two category winners this year triumphed 
because of their innovations in renewable feedstocks. Winner of the Best Innovation by a Small or Medium-sized Enterprise (SME) is Renmatix, which has developed a route to break down cellulosic materials to produce C5 and C6 sugars; the winner of the Best 
Innovation for Sustainability category, sponsored by Italy’s Versalis, is Virent, for its 
development of a bio-based technology to produce paraxylene.

The search for renewable feedstocks by the chemical industry has been accelerating rapidly in recent years and has been highlighted in the ICIS Innovation Awards in recent years in many of the entries by the likes of Genomatica, LanzaTech, BioAmber, Novomer and so on. As Just Jansz commented, sustainable development is getting a lot of attention at the moment. “This is indeed what customers expect today,” he noted.

The Renmatix innovation uses supercritical water at elevated temperatures and pressures to deconstruct a wide range of non-food plant materials in seconds. Dubbed Plantrose, it uses no significant chemicals or consumables, and produces xylose and glucose sugars and lignin, which is used to provide the thermal input into the continuous process.

Renmatix claims its approach is very low cost and scalable. It is currently working with a number of partners to develop the technology and its applications, including Waste Management in the US, forestry expert UPM, and 
Russia’s Vnesheconombank and Bright Capital, which are financing the development of cellulosic ethanol production facilities. In addition, it is providing sugar samples to more than a dozen companies worldwide, including BASF, which is an investor in Renmatix, as well as specialised niche players in biochemicals and biofuels.

The economics of any new process are all-important, as Gianni Girotti pointed out: “Many players claim to have conversion technologies, but they are hard to understand from the economic point of view.” In this case, though, the Renmatix innovation has potential as it gets away from using sugars that have alternative values in the food chain.

Virent’s winning innovation consists of a combination of its Aqueous Phase Reforming (APR) technology and modified conventional catalytic processing technologies it calls BioForming. This converts aqueous carbohydrate solutions into a mix of hydrocarbons, using carbon dioxide as a raw material. In the specific case of the Award entry, the product is paraxylene and the feedstocks used have ranged from US corn to EU sugar beets and Brazilian sugarcane.

In 2011, Virent and Coca-Cola formed a strategic partnership to accelerate commercial production of Virent’s BioFormPX paraxylene, so it can be used in Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle, a polyester terephthalate (PET) bottle currently made from 30% bio-based materials. Use of bio-PX will enable the bio-based content to reach 100%, providing consumers with fully sustainable packaging.

Sustainability also featured very strongly as a driver in the Best Business Innovation category, sponsored by Nexeo Solutions and won by Archroma, until recently the textile chemicals, paper specialties and emulsions businesses of Swiss speciality chemical company Clariant. It has developed the “One Way” sustainability service, which helps textile mill operators and textile brand owners to develop innovative textile solutions that are both ecologically and economically sustainable. The aim, says Archroma, is to provide a fast, measurable and reliable approach to the selection of chemical products and process solutions.

One Way takes a highly systematic 
approach to selection of dyes and chemicals, all of which have been screened by Archroma’s product stewardship specialists against more than 15 textile eco-standards and criteria. The service comes with a sophisticated software calculator that enables assessment of cost, performance and environmental profile of products almost instantly.

As Eric Witt noted, these days it is getting harder to engage customers with innovation and this service approach is “a fairly creative way to get the buzz out” into the market. Jacques Komornicki agreed, adding that “it is a very good approach from the business innovation stand point... and not one I’ve seen in the textile sector before”.

The successful entry in the Best Product Innovation category, sponsored by Roland Berger, is an example of innovation in a mature sector, in this case synthetic vanilla. Solvay Aroma Performance has created a new route to this much used food flavouring, and one that it says offers enhanced flavouring and the ability to reduce the levels of fats and/or sugar in food formulations, thus providing strong cost reduction for food producers as well as well-being improvements for consumers.

Govanil, as the new product range is known, is the first major innovation in this area for 40 years, since the launch of ethyl-vanillin. It is a globally patented innovation, integrating Solvay expertise in chemistry and chemical and process engineering – using new Controlled Reactive Formulation (CRF) technology – as well as functional food formulation and marketing. The CRF technology is different from conventional ones such as atomisation and extrusion, and alters the melting point of the vanillin, improving its solubility in fats and aqueous media.

This category provided close competition and there was no clear stand-out winner. But the judges liked the fact that Solvay has been able to innovate in a mature sector and produce an innovation that because of its nutritional benefits has a resonance with the wider public. As Eric Witt noted, Govanil “has a good PR value in the marketplace.”

Overall the judges said the innovations entered were more diverse than in previous years and showed a return to innovation in more mature areas, such as flavourings, poly-ester and insulation materials. The surge in bio-based entries seems to have subsided a little, said Checker, a regular judge for the Awards, possibly as technologies are coming to maturity.

On the other hand, environmental and sustainability concerns seem to be a key part of most of the innovations – those that do not have benefits in these areas, pointed out Kruithof, would not get past early stage-gate reviews in most companies today.

Jansz added that it is evident companies continue to recognise the value of long-term commitments to R&D, even in bad times. The drive, added Komornicki, starts from the market and the societal challenges that people want to solve. “Open innovation is becoming increasingly important as there is a need to get to market quicker and to work closer with customers.”

As I think you will agree, this year’s ICIS Innovation Awards have produced yet another crop of high-quality innovations, justly deserving of recognition. The judges had to work hard in several categories to reach a consensus, and I’d like to congratulate not only the category and overall winners but the runners-up in each category this year. The awards will be presented in London in early December at a special lunch with the winners, sponsors and judges.

You can read more about the winning entries and the sponsors’ views on innovation over the following pages. I trust these stories will help inspire your innovation efforts. They show that it is possible for the chemical industry to innovate in mature as well as leading-edge market segments, and to make potentially huge improvements to the well-being of the environment and hence to all of us who live in it.


  • Overall Winner
    Cabot Corporation, Aerogel
  • Best Product Innovation
    Solvay Aroma Performance
    Govanil – pioneering the new reference of vanilla flavours
  • Best Business Innovation
    Archroma (formerly part of Clariant)
    “One Way” sustainability service
  • Best Innovation by an SME
    Advances in sugar conversion technology: using supercritical hydrolysis to provide an economical bridge between upstream and downstream biochemicals
  • Innovation with Best Environmental Benefit
    Cabot Corporation, Aerogel
    Cabot Aerogel for eco-friendly building and construction
  • Best Innovation for Sustainability
    Converting plant sugars to PX for renewable, recyclable packaging and fibres


This year, Roland Berger Strategy Consultants took on overall sponsorship of the ICIS Innovation Awards, as well as continuing to sponsor the Best Product Innovation category.

Neil Checker, partner at Roland Berger, comments that “we are honoured and delighted to have the opportunity to take on the role of overall sponsor of this prestigious award programme, following on from our support in previous years. Our sponsorship of this prestigious innovation awards programme supports our commitment to helping clients develop and improve their innovation capabilities from innovation strategy through to implementation of innovation processes and organisation structures.”

Roland Berger has a competence centre focused on innovation management – Innovation and Product Engineering (IPE) – and this team leads projects and develops thought leadership on this critical area, leveraging the cross-industry and global experience of the firm.

A recent example of such thought leadership is a joint publication with INSEAD, “Innovating at the Top, How CEOs of Global Companies Drive innovation for Growth and Profit”, with chief executives from firms including Bosch, Genentech, Infosys, 3M, SAP and Toyota contributing to this research.

For more details, go to

For the past five years, U.S. Chemicals has been honoured to sponsor the Best Environ-mental Benefit category of the ICIS Chemical Business Innovation Awards. Each year has offered a positive look at responsible manufacturing and creative ways of doing things differently to help improve our environment.

During 2012, U.S. Chemicals partnered with Trees for a Change and exceeded our company goal of planting 1,000 trees. We plan to continue this initiative with our upcoming project, dedicated to the ­regeneration of trees in Gallatin National Forest in Montana.

Four hundred trees will be planted in memory of the lives lost in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, on 14 December 2012. To add to the growth of our environment, we will be creating an organic garden, right outside our office doors.

With future generations relying on our present actions, U.S. Chemicals has been proud to partner with ICIS for innovative creativity and encouragement. U.S. Chemicals sends its congratulations to this year’s Innovation Award winners! To learn more, visit

Today, producers and customers for chemicals, plastics, composites and environmental services need a distribution partner with the expertise to add value and the global infrastructure to help connect them to opportunities worldwide.

Nexeo Solutions’ goal is here to meet that need. It aspires to establish itself as the exclusive and preferred partner of choice for customers and suppliers in its key markets. It measures success by its ability to fulfil customers’ orders with the highest degree of reliability and efficiency – and it does so with a relentless focus on safety and compliance.

By setting these ambitious goals, Nexeo Solutions is a company that creates value for its customers and suppliers, and provides a rewarding place of employment for its team members.

Learn more at www.­



Versalis, part of Eni, interfaces with markets through globally oriented strategies and a market-driven product portfolio. It leads the industry in manufacturing intermediates, polyethylene (PE), styrenics and elastomers, a business that positions the company as a worldwide leader and reinforces its optimisation process.

Versalis boasts a wide range of proprietary technologies, a wide-reaching distribution network and after-sales assistance. The company is strongly focused on the growing green chemicals sector through Matrica, a joint venture with Novamont, to build a bio-run complex in Sardinia. Versalis has also partnered with Genomatica to produce ­bio-butadiene, with Yulex for guayule-based natural rubber and with Pirelli for a joint research project on the use of guayule-based natural rubber in tyre production.

For additional information:­history.shtml

By: John Baker
+44 20 8652 3214

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