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Blog: Helsinki Chemicals Forum - Could California Hold the Key to EU Chemical Industry Survival?

12:12 PM MDT | May 21, 2010 | By ALEX SCOTT

The second annual Helsinki Chemicals Forum (HCF) featuring discussions between industry executives and chemicals sector stakeholders from around the world concluded today in Helsinki, with discussions across a swathe of topics from regulation, through to competitiveness and sustainable chemistry. Ultimately, the key question raised at the event was-what do EU regulators/EU chemical companies have to do to ensure that their chemical industry survives?
 
Cefic stated that survival is dependent on smart innovation and regulation. The group for many years has repeated its call for the need to have a “level playing field” on regulation, and Hubert Mandery, director general/Cefic, didn’t let up here in Helsinki. This is understandable. The EU chemical industry, already losing ground to Asia, is starting to sense the emergence of Middle Eastern companies that enjoy feedstocks which EU producers simply can’t compete against on price. Add to that the ongoing cost of Reach and the impending multi-billion dollar hike in money set to be drawn off the EU industry from 2013 via the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), and it is understandable why these executives might have appeared a little short of breath. Even the optimistic analysis indicated by Martin J. Evans, director/Equities, head of European Chemicals Research for JP Morgan Cazenove, that first quarter 2010 financial figures across the region were robust, did little to improve the mood of the panel, which featured among others Kemira’s CEO Harri Kerminen; Thorsten Iske, senior v.p./BASF; Keith Wiggins, managing director/U.K. and Nordic countries for Dow Chemical; and Anthony Owens, managing director/Arran Chemical.
 
An interesting contrast emerged between the above panel and a sense of optimism that purveyed the subsequent discussion on green chemistry. The green chemistry panel featured regulators and academics and a chemical producer all from California who say they are starting to see the emergence of a green chemistry culture that might just pave the way for a future chemicals industry that is internationally competitive, focused on solving world issues such as water quality, and energy, and avoids the use of toxic chemicals. Ultimately it’s a formula for industry to be trusted by consumers, they say.
 
Martin Mulvihill, curriculum director for Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry at the Berkeley Institute of Environment, during the panel shared a vision that the chemical industry should be looking to harness: As a result of changes introduced by Mulvihill and his colleagues, chemistry undergraduates at Berkeley in their first week don’t dust off the old jars of chemicals from the lab shelves, instead they learn how to make biofuel. In their second week they learn about the chemical impact of various additives to the biofuel. In their third week they evaluate the impact of various blends of biofuel that they have made on the germination of seedlings. Mulvihill then challenges the would-be chemists to decide which formula of biofuel each student would like to see used on the roads of California.
 
This is new and engaging, and this type of approach where would-be chemists can get a glimpse of the potential roles they could play once they graduate has got to be the type of teaching that could inspire students all around the world to major in chemistry.
 
Another activity initiated by Mulvihill, a specialist in nanomaterial science, is Berkeley’s annual green chemistry seminar. The event, which is organized by the students themselves, sets out to illustrate the advantages of applying green chemistry. Of the 30 or so students that attended this single seminar some 75% said that as a direct result they would undertake their research differently.
 
Mulvihill is a realist and freely admits that what he and his colleagues at Berkeley are doing is “taking the first steps.” The first steps are “all about access to information,” he says. “We don’t have a set of safe chemicals in our back pocket for the public. First we need to evaluate what is out there.”
 
Reflecting back to the EU chemical industry, certainly it is under pressure, but perhaps green chemistry--in the widest definition of the term--if applied comprehensively could play a key role in enabling industry in the west to create a virtuous circle where it attracts the brightest students, inspires innovative solutions to global issues and so makes the industry more profitable.
 
Mulvihill’s chemistry course is one I would have loved to have taken. Amid the pessimism of the EU chemical industry, what Mulvihill has identified is a possible sighting of a path to long term survival. This is one formula the chemical industry needs to reproduce, bottle, and distribute it as quickly as possible. 
 












 
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