Sustainability was a strong theme throughout this year’s ICIS Innovation Awards. Many entries detailed benefits arising from, for example, the use of renewable feedstocks, greater recyclability and/or reduced carbon footprint.

The four category winners and the overall winner certainly demonstrate how innovation can be a key driver in moving towards a more sustainable future and a circular economy.

Between them, the winning innovations enable more effective recycling of tyres (Lehigh Technologies), the use of lignin as a chemical feedstock (Stora Enso), zero-carbon recovery of iron from process waste (Electrochem Technologies & Materials), and more environmentally friendly production of surfactants (Galaxy Surfactants).

ICIS congratulates these four worthy winners and especially US-based Lehigh Technologies, which not only won the Innovation with Best Benefit to Environment or Sustainability category, but was judged the overall winner in the ICIS Innovation Awards for 2018. Well done all!

Winners

The judges considered Lehigh’s Technology’s process to make micronised rubber powder (MRP) from end-of-life tyres as an outstanding technical and commercial 
innovation. It is now being used to help Michelin, Lehigh’s parent company since 2017, meet ambitious targets for use of recycled rubber in new tyres and close the materials loop in tyre manufacture.

The judges were also very impressed with Stora Enso’s entry, for extraction and treatment of lignin so it can be used as a renewable replacement for fossil-based materials. The Finnish company won the Best Product Innovation category and was a close runner up for the overall award.

Award Lehigh

The Best Process Innovation category was won by India’s Galaxy Surfactants, for a novel catalytic route to amino acid surfactants, and the Best Innovation by an SME award went to Canada’s Electrochem Technologies & Materials, for its electrolytic recovery of iron from copperas (ferrous sulphate heptahydrate) and ferrous sulphate solutions.

The locations of the four winners – they come from the US, Canada, Finland and India – illustrate the global nature of innovation in the chemical industry.

In their deliberations, the judges were particularly looking for commercial development of the innovation and the scale of actual or 
potential market impact as they assessed the short-listed entries in each category. The 
degree of innovation and problem-solving 
involved in the product or process were also criteria used in the assessment of each entry.

In these respects the Lehigh entry scored highly. It is a fully commercial process with a huge potential, given the 1bn tyres (25m tonnes of waste) that are discarded each year. The powder product is in a high-quality, easy-to-use form.

The patented manufacturing process for micronised rubber powder (MRP) involves two key technologies: cryogenic freezing of correctly sized rubber granulate followed by high impact micronisation in a unique high-throughput turbo-mill. This, says Lehigh, yields a particle size distribution of micron-scale particles on an industrial scale.

Detlef Kratz of BASF, the overall sponsor of the awards, commented that Lehigh’s development “closed the loop on the business case” for recycling. “In many recycling routes, quite often there are gaps but here we have a good combination of recycling and technology that produces an easily used product.”

Paul Bjacek of Accenture added that he considered the Lehigh development a significant advance in the circular economy. “Rubber from used vehicle tyres is tough to recycle, with most going into crumb for recreational surfaces and asphalt-modification applications. The use of cryo-freezing and micron-isation enables it to be used again in new tyres, which is a big game-changer.” And, he added, reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

Mike McKenna of Maroon Group described the Lehigh development as “a fantastic innovation that will provide significant benefit for generations to come. It has been able to 
address a long-term challenge with a novel approach that provides a positive impact to our global economy.”

Since 2007, Lehigh has operated five production lines with an output of 60,000 tonnes/year in Tucker, Georgia, US, and has now started up a 10,000 tonne/year plant in Europe, in Navarra, Spain. Over 500m new tyres have been manufactured using Lehigh’s MRP product, which is marketed under the PolyDyne brand name.

This product and other variants are also in commercial use in markets as diverse as asphalt, plastics, construction and polyurethanes.

The potential of the technology certainly caught the attention of major tyre producer Michelin, which last year acquired the company “to enhance its ‘4R’ strategy to reduce, reuse, recycle and renew materials.” Michelin recently announced its goals that by 2048 all new tyres will contain 80% renewable raw materials (including recyclate), and that 100% of tyres will be recycled.

To put that in perspective, today the worldwide recovery rate for tyres is 70% and the recycling rate is 50% – the other 20% being accounted for by incineration with energy recovery.

Michelin tyres are currently made using 28% sustainable materials (natural rubber, sunflower oil, limonene, etc) – with 2% in the form of recycled materials such as steel and rubber. The aim is to increase this recyclate content to 30% by 2048.

The Lehigh entry was considered by the judging panel to be a clear winner in the 
Innovation with Best Benefit for Environment or Sustainability category, easing out entries from DSM (a circular economy approach to carpet recycling), U.S. Water (non-phosphorus containing water treatment) and Dow Chemical (a textile treatment to reduce water, energy and dye use in dyeing cotton).

BEST PRODUCT INNOVATION

Finnish paper maker Stora Enso has developed a process to extract lignin from wood pulp, where it accounts for 20-30% of the overall mass, and turn it into a usable powder form. Conventionally, the lignin is usually discarded or burned for energy during the pulp production process.

The finished form of the Stora Enso innovation – a dry, free-flowing lignin powder – also caught the judges’ eye, as did the fact that it is now in large-scale production, in a 50,000 tonnes/year plant at its Sunila paper mill.

The product is commercially available as Lineo by Stora Enso, a biobased replacement for fossil-based phenolic binders in wood products, such as plywood and oriented strand board (OSB), for example.

As Kratz noted, “This is the one that clearly stands out [in this category]… it’s commercial, biobased, high impact… and the development has made it available in a stable form.” Given its sustainability and abundance, he added, “use of lignin in any way would be a major breakthrough.”

The assessment was echoed by David Woods of ExxonMobil Chemical, bringing to bear his own experience in the biomass for chemicals area. Given its nature, he added “lignin is always a destroyer of economics. If [Stora Enso] has truly developed a free-flowing powder, then this really is a game-changer.”

And consultant Godefroy Motte added, “This is a big step and has a very large potential. If they can do it, it will solve a sustainability issue in the market [for phenolics and the like].”

Lignin is a complex aromatic macromolecule containing a high number of phenolic, aliphatic and carboxylic hydroxyl groups and as such can be used without further chemical treatment.

The lignin is separated during the kraft pulping process of Nordic softwood (spruce and pine), using the Lignoboost system developed originally developed by Innventia and Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. This is coupled with a ring dryer to extract a high purity kraft lignin from the black liquor stream.

The Lineo product line consists of a free-flowing brown powder which Stora Enso says opens up new application opportunities in many industries. “Compared to phenol and formaldehyde it is more stable and safer alternative. It is easy to handle and has stable pricing due to backward integration, making it an ideal biobased, nontoxic alternative.”

The powder has a high dry content and superior dispersibility and can be stored for an extended period. Stora Enso is already selling Lineo as a replacement for phenol and is looking at many other applications, as well as at increased production with extraction units at its other pulp mills.

The other short-listed entries in this category were AkzoNobel’s Levasil CC, a nano-scale colloidal silica for use in paint formulations to impart self-cleaning properties to the coating; Teijin’s development of an injection-moulded polycarbonate car windscreen, with associated innovation in surface treatment to impart scratch resistance; and Applied Research & Photonic’s scanning spectrometer for measuring surfaces at the nanoscale.

While not a chemical innovation as such, the latter was deemed worthy of mention for its technical excellence and potential usefulness as an analytical tool.

BEST PROCESS INNOVATION

The Best Process Innovation category saw a number of strong entries on the shortlist but after a close discussion the judges elected to give the award to Galaxy Surfactants for its novel, environmentally friendly process to produce N-acyl amino acid surfactants.

These mild anionic surfactants find uses in personal care products such as skin care and hair care, providing cleansing as well as sensory benefits. Traditionally they are produced in a two-step synthesis – preparing a fatty acid chloride by halogenating a fatty acid in the presence of a catalyst, and then condensing this fatty acid chloride with an amino acid under typical Schotten Baumann conditions.

The problem comes when trying to isolate the fatty acid chloride from the catalyst reaction mixture. Also, the dimethyl formamide (DM) catalyst is a toxic material – it is rated as a CMR in Annexe VI of the ECHA CLP regulations.

Galaxy’s brainwave was to catalyse the step 1 reaction by using an amino acid surfactant as the catalyst in a semi-heterogeneous process, so that it is not necessary to isolate the catalyst before moving on to step 2.

The advantages are several: the process uses a completely degradable and non-toxic catalyst; the separation issues (distillation/crystallisation/phase separation) are eliminated – reducing batch time and giving a significant saving on energy and waste disposal; the overall process is “green”, with the closed loop process causing no emissions to the environment; and the odour of the product is improved (due to elimination of DMF).

Galaxy estimates the market for the main N-acyl amino acid surfactants is around 113,000 tonnes/year and growing rapidly. Between 2013 and mid-2018, some 15,000 consumer products containing this type of surfactant have been launched on to the global market.

The innovation has recently been recognised by major personal care products 
Unilever with one of its “Partner to win” awards, citing Galaxy’s innovation for its “Green catalysis & sustainability”.

Godefroy Motte commented that he really liked the process for its “green” environmental aspects and its commercial potential in the personal care sector, “although the market size for these types of specialty surfactant is not huge.” He also liked the confidence of Galaxy and the way is has been able to work with Unilever as a Partner to Win – “clearly a challenging task”.

Two other entries in this category attracted positive comments from the judges. Second in the judges’ mind was Greenyug’s direct bioethanol to ethyl acetate route using reactive distillation. This has several advantages over conventional routes to the high-volume chemical, and is in the process of scale up to 50,000 tonnes/year. But the judges felt it just lacked that degree of impact and innovation to take the category award.

Grillo-Werke’s sustainable direct route from methane to methanesulphonic acid (MSA) was described as a worthy process 
invention overcoming the great challenge of using methane as a feedstock, but one that was as-yet not commercialised and perhaps lacked large-scale market potential.

BEST INNOVATION BY AN SME

Only two entries made it on to the short-list for this category – with the winner judged to be Electrochem Technologies & Materials for its electrochemical process for recovery of iron from certain process wastes. In this case, the judges based their decision on the potential for the technology, given that it is still in the demonstration phase.

The runner up was Enerkem, for its development of a high octane biofuel using its municipal waste to bio-DME via biomethanol process and subsequent catalytic conversion to a paraffin-rich gasoline.

The market potential for the Electrochem development is indeed large. The technology enables recovery of iron from copperas, a by-product of titanium dioxide pigment production, and copperas equivalent – mainly spent pickling liquors from the metallurgical and pickling industries. These wastes account for 8.8m tonnes/year annual in the case of TiO2 pigment production and 16m tonnes/year from the pickling sector.

The company – established in Canada in 2010 – claims the electrowinning of copperas produces iron with lower energy requirement per tonne of iron than conventional steel-making by smelting, and also requires lower capital and operational expenditures.

Additionally, by avoiding the use of a carbon reducing agent and by using green electricity (hydro- or nuclear), it operates with a zero CO2 footprint. The process also produces sulphuric acid (30%) and oxygen gas as by-products of the electrolysis.

The electrolytic iron produced can be in several forms – notably flakes, nodules, powder or plates, suitable for use directly or in sintering/melting processes for high quality steels.

Interest in the process is increasing, given the pressure on producers to manage and reduce waste streams around the world, especially with the move away from landfilling of wastes and increasing pressure to recycle.

We thank the Awards sponsors – BASF, Maroon Group, Accenture and 
ExxonMobil Chemical – and the judges for their support this year.

Judges