We must improve the chemistry between industry and society, says Graeme Armstrong

We must improve the chemistry between industry and society, says Graeme Armstrong


We often talk about ’good chemistry’ - in movies, sports, love and in the workplace. Sometimes, with the right chemistry, you get amazing interactions between disparate elements of a group or team leading to unexpected results and achievements. But when we talk about chemistry as a science it’s a different story. Chemistry remains rather misunderstood and underappreciated. Mention it and many people still think of smoke stacks and grimy factories. 

That’s unfortunate, and not just because we’d all like it to be loved. It’s unfortunate because chemistry in the 21st century - ’modern chemistry’ - is so important, does so much good for society and is so essential to meeting future challenges. Of course, chemistry played a vital role in developing our modern, industrialised society but modern chemistry is very different. As important as chemistry has been in the past, modern chemistry may well play an even greater role in securing our future. 

Food and fuel 

Modern chemistry is vital for the sustainable development of Planet Earth. Nothing is more critical to meeting future needs, such as developing renewable energy sources, securing safe water supplies, feeding a growing population on a sustainable basis, managing our scarce resources, and maintaining human health. Not only does modern chemistry deserve a better reputation, but it also needs a good reputation to attract talent, to gain understanding from the public and to draw support from government. 

And yet, modern chemistry is all but invisible to most consumers, who don’t associate it with the everyday technology and medical treatments on which they depend.  

What people miss by overlooking the chemistry that is all around them is just how absolutely amazing modern chemistry is. What we see today is not just different combinations of chemical compounds to make new ’stuff’, but functionality that was unimaginable in an earlier time. Chemistry gives us incredible processes that efficiently convert raw materials into specialised products and materials with almost no waste. It has played a vital role in developing ’white’ biotechnology - biology-based industrial processes that promise simpler, cleaner and more sustainable production of everything from fuel to pharmaceuticals. 

In academic institutions all over the world and in companies in every corner of the chemical industry, scientists are making discoveries and realising functionalities that are almost mind-boggling, such as the development of bioengineered pharmaceuticals that target viruses and cancers. Look, for example, at Kraton Performance Polymers’ Nexar polymer membrane technology - it can purify hundreds of times more water than traditional membranes, saving 70 per cent in membrane costs and 50 per cent in energy costs. (Nexar won a US Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 Presidential green chemistry challenge award.) Or RSC Creativity in Industry prize winner John Clough’s pioneering work at Syngenta on the use of natural products in crop protection.  

Or, to cite a few innovations at AkzoNobel, where I oversee research, development and innovation activities: exterior paints and roof tile coatings that help keep buildings cool inside; readily biodegradable chelating agents for more environmentally friendly detergent formulations; and marine anti-fouling coatings that enable ocean-going vessels to save up to 15 per cent in fuel consumption. 

Chemical economy 

A mere lack of recognition of chemistry’s contributions is one thing, but the ’invisibility’ of modern chemistry concerns me for another reason: it compromises our future. Even with the decline of ’old’ chemistry in the industrialised world, the chemical industry remains one of the most important sectors in the economies of industrialised nations. In the UK, when all aspects of our broad chemical industry are tallied up, the sector is the number two or three contributor to our gross domestic product (depending on how you do the sums). It may no longer employ the many thousands of industrial workers it once did, but today’s industry is one of the major employers of highly educated engineers, researchers and technicians. There are tremendous opportunities for fulfilling work and a great need for a steady flow of new talent. We need to communicate that value to the world and not be excessively modest about what we contribute in both financial and non-financial ways to our wellbeing.  

Modern chemistry - sustainable, amazingly creative and absolutely essential to tackle the challenges of the future - is good for the world. Which makes it even more important that we improve the chemistry between ourselves and the society we serve. 

Graeme Armstrong is head of Research, Development and Innovation at AkzoNobel and chairman at Chemistry Innovation KTN