The chemical industry in Flanders is of major importance at several levels. It provides 10% of all employment in Flanders, is home of the largest petrochemical cluster in Europe and is the main location of 10 out of the world’s top 20 chemical companies. The chemical industry stands for more or less 50% of all R&D expenditures in Flanders and for 30% of all industrial investments in Belgium. Flanders is located at the heart of the Antwerp-Rotterdam-Rhine-Ruhr area, Europe’s strongest industrial mega-cluster with 80% for Europe’s purchasing power located within a radius of 800 km (Flanders Investment & Trade).
Recently, some major investments have been made. In 2017, Kaneka strengthened its future in the region by announcing an investment of EUR 34 million in a third modified silicone (MS) polymer production line at its facility in Westerlo. Borealis is investing 1 billion Euro into the construction of a new propylene factory in Antwerp. The British chemical concern INEOS will be funneling 3 billion Euro into the expansion of its local chemical plant, which represents the largest chemical investment in Europe of the past two decades. The pinnacle of the investment is an ethane gas cracker, one of the largest in the world.
No need to say that chemical research is a key area in Flanders, and that sustainability in the chemical sector is crucial for a very densely populated region. Furthermore, it will be essential to continue to innovate our chemical production in order to remain competitive compared to emerging (and already existing) industrial powers such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia. Indeed, Asia’s chemical production has already surpassed that of the rest of the world. Contributing to this, China is by far the biggest chemical producer in sales. On top of that, the growth in the global economy has slowed down in recent years. Generally speaking, business investment is weak, cross-border trade in goods and services is dwindling, and physical goods are under persistent deflationary pressures. Therefore, the outlook for growth in Europe remains unpromising, as demand continues to be weak. In this context, Flanders need to be aware of the changing world and invest in research and innovation.
The European Commission is now developing the Horizon Europe program in order to stimulate the necessary internal changes to create "a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy". The development of new technologies to produce chemicals in a sustainable way will be a key issue to keep the European chemical industry in a strong position. If Flanders wants to maintain an important role in the European chemical industry, it will have to develop competitive tools to enable a more efficient and sustainable production. The vision and creating new possibilities;
It is crucial for the academic community in Flanders to build up knowledge and to develop a sustainable technology platform for the transition to a more sustainable industry. This proposal concerns a continuation of the scientific research community for the sustainable production of fine chemicals and thus fits directly into this picture. A community for scientific exchange and collaboration is essential, as it is not possible for a single research group to deal with the numerous and varied facets of sustainable chemistry/technology. Only through joint stimulation and teamwork, the most effective solutions can be created to help to address the enormous challenges ahead. The sustainable production of fine chemicals (and building blocks for polymers) is a broad area that encompasses many varied and different research areas, including new synthetic methodologies, (bio)catalysis, flow chemistry, electrochemistry, photochemistry, renewable resources, new ways of energy transfer, and the combination of all these techniques in order to optimize the complete production process. Each area requires specific and expert equipment, which calls for collaboration and integration. The different research groups brought together in this scientific community are each world-leading in one or more areas of chemical sustainability. The principal idea of the research community is to increase the interaction between the research groups and to combine their specific expertise in order to obtain more generic sustainable approaches and processes.
The continuation of a community resource; The continuation of a research community will provide a forum for future collaboration in the area of sustainability and stimulate in depth discussion on the integration of research areas. Efforts will be made to get detailed information of the chemical industry to identify real problems related to processes that have a big environmental and/or economic footprint. This approach also complements the efforts being undertaken within the framework of Catalisti, the spearhead cluster for the chemical industry in Flanders. The initiative is now being broadened by top international experts in certain areas of sustainable chemistry and does not focus only on topics that need to be immediately implemented industrially, but also focuses on basic research leading to industrial application on a longer term, which will positively influence the development and the applicability of sustainable chemistry in our region. The working group will consider the process dimension (Green Engineering) as well as a holistic extension of the Green Chemistry innovations. Furthermore, it will create additional opportunities to educate doctoral students and postdocs by allowing direct contact with a wider selection of international experts, which will aid to influence their thinking and their future careers. "Benign by Design" needs to take the place of "end-of-pipe solutions" for sustainability problems.
The initial aim of this community is to organize international workshops on sustainable chemistry in order to disseminate the results of the research of the different collaborating partners and to give training on specific topics for PhD students and postdocs of the Flemish community (not limited to the partners of this application). The aim is to allow leverage of the group activities by linking to existing networks which concentrate on sustainability, such as the Ghent University Centre of Sustainable Chemistry, the International Conference on Renewable Resources and Biorefineries, the Belgian Merck Organic Chemistry Symposium on fine chemicals, the international Belgian Organic Synthesis Symposium (BOSS), the Global Green Chemistry Centers Network (G2C2) … The interaction between the expert research groups in specific areas of sustainable chemistry will lead to a competitive advantage for the Flemish chemical industry and form an asset for young researchers who have experience in sustainable chemistry.