Chemistry as cradle for a better world


Reconciling chemistry with the climate issue is the challenge. But we in Flanders are well placed to meet that challenge: we have the knowledge, the production facilities and the framework. The future of chemistry is sustainable and looks good.

From PET bottles to smartphones, from fertilisers to glues; the products of the chemicals and plastics sector have become part and parcel of our daily lives. They have contributed immensely to our standard and quality of life. The chemical industry is therefore one of the most important industrial sectors in Flanders.

But despite the importance and economic success of the past, the Flemish chemical industry faces major challenges in terms of energy and raw material use, and climate issues, among others.

Innovation as the key to greater sustainability

Flanders wants the switch to the chemistry of the future to be made here too. It has Catalisti for that purpose. Catalisti is the innovation network of the Flemish chemicals and plastics sector that links research, production and frameworks. The ambition of Catalisti is to set up sustainable projects in response to both economic and societal challenges such as sustainability, climate, circularity and digitalisation through innovation partnerships between universities, knowledge centres, small and large companies and with the support of the government.

The Flemish government is also actively tackling the climate issue through its Moonshot programme for fundamental research into ways of avoiding CO2 emissions in energy-intensive industry. Given the crucial role that chemistry and plastics play in both CO2 emissions and in avoiding them by providing pioneering solutions (also for other sectors), the government has assigned the Moonshot programme's director role to Catalisti.

More circularity through better recycling

Innovative research should thus lead to new products and new processes associated with lower CO2 emissions. The aim is for those technologies to quickly find their way to companies if we want Flanders to become carbon neutral by 2050. This is challenging, but necessary and achievable.

We need to move towards a circular economy. For instance, Flanders has long been doing well in sorting and mechanically recycling plastic waste. Today, chemical recycling is also being actively pursued. This innovative technology aims to decompose plastic into its elementary building blocks, with which new plastic products can be made.

By thoroughly rethinking existing processes, significant steps can also be taken towards a carbon-smart industry.

Green raw materials

There are also breakthroughs in the area of raw materials. Aromatics, for example, are chemical components that are important in a wide variety of applications and products such as clothing, insulation material or car seats. Until now, aromatics could only be extracted from crude oil. But Flemish researchers have succeeded in developing processes to extract molecules with similar properties from wood waste and by-products of the paper industry. These bio-aromatics could completely replace traditional petroleum components.

Electrification and radical process transformation

Thoroughly rethinking existing processes can also make significant strides towards a carbon-smart industry. Switching to electrified industrial processes is part of the solution here. For example, by heating crackers electrically (instead of having to burn natural gas to do so), several million tonnes of CO2 emissions can be avoided annually in Flanders. And all this also with Flemish technology.

Hydrogen also offers itself as a solution. It causes no emissions and can be produced from water and green electricity that cannot always be fed into the grid in periods of peak production.

Cooperation as an engine of innovation

To increase the chances of some of the new technological developments making it through to a market introduction, cooperation within the value chain and between sectors is necessary. Fortunately, Flanders also has innovation clusters for other sectors that actively cooperate among themselves: Flux50, the Blue Cluster, Flanders' FOOD, SIM, VIL and flanders.healthTech.

So in Flanders the conditions are favourable to become or remain world leaders in sustainable chemistry: knowledge institutions and professors who excel in their research field, motivated companies that are highly skilled in running complex processes, successful sector innovation platforms, a supportive government, and the will to work on ideas together.

Source: Media Planet