Innovations aimed at improving overall sustainability play a crucial role at Covestro. In the reporting period, the close link between innovation and sustainability was evident across our various business activities, in particular in the development of sustainable technologies, advances in the use of biobased raw materials, and the use of renewable energy. Our innovation activities also include new developments in process engineering, business process optimization and the development of new business models. To implement these initiatives as speedily as possible, Covestro is actively pursuing a range of different measures. For instance, it is fostering the innovation potential of its workforce, collaborating with academic and industrial partners, cooperating with technology platforms and start-ups, exchanging best practice within international consortia and actively promoting participation in political forums and initiatives.
Covestro is continually making progress in developing new technology. Global collaboration with partners from academia and industry under the banner of open innovation is of great strategic importance for Covestro. Already since 2008, Covestro and RWTH Aachen University have operated the CAT Catalytic Center which conducts basic research in the field of catalysis. One of the partnership’s particularly successful breakthroughs was enabling the use of CO2 as a raw material in plastics production. At the CAT Catalytic Center, fundamental research is also being conducted for the new Carbon4PUR project funded by the European Union. This research project run by Covestro along with 13 other partners from seven European countries aims to promote sustainable resource-efficient technologies that reduce the overall use of petroleum. The project focuses on employing waste gases from the steel industry, such as CO2, in the manufacture of polyurethanes. Covestro already uses CO2 from chemical industry waste gases as an alternative raw material to produce a key component for polyurethane foam. These research activities and their implementation in production illustrate the promising route toward a circular economy and the intelligent use of closed carbon cycles.
As part of its efforts to develop its business model, since midway through the reporting period Covestro has been partnering with the Plug and Play Tech Center, an innovation center and one of the world’s top start-up accelerators based in Silicon Valley, USA. Through its partnership with this accelerator Covestro is seeking to promote a start-up culture over the long term, while at the same time exploring new business opportunities in the fields of innovative materials and digitalization.
In product development too, Covestro scored further successes during the reporting year, for example in the field of LED technology. Our polycarbonate-based materials solutions, were instrumental in shaping the development of LED technologies for the lighting market. Another innovation is updating our thermally conductive MakrolonTM portfolio based on customer feedback and the addition of types with electrical insulation properties. Compared with conventional aluminum heat sinks, the new MakrolonTM allows the development of an unprecedented variety of heat management applications for LEDs. In turn, this will enable new designs for lighting that optimally leverage the advantages of LED technology. The key to success here is a new application technology employing multi-component injection molding systems.
Solutions for the healthcare sector also benefit from technological innovations: polycarbonate-based materials contribute to continual improvements in quality and safety standards. In order to reduce the risk of infection, hospitals are cleaning medical devices such as infusion pumps and patient monitors with increasingly aggressive disinfectants. Our latest polycarbonate-based composite materials help protect this equipment against such chemicals.
In addition, Covestro is constantly striving to improve the technologies and processes it uses in its own production plants with a view to efficiency and environmental impact. In this context, research is underway on new high-performance thermoplastics in collaboration with the German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and partners. These plastics theoretically have a much more advantageous environmental footprint than other alternatives currently available on the market.
Alongside the investment in technology, the research and development of products based on biobased raw materials also plays a key role. One of Covestro’s aims is to use alternative, non-fossil raw materials and biobased processes in production. To this end, Covestro is participating in international consortia such as Biorizon, a cross-border initiative of independent research institutions which partner with numerous companies for the purpose of working on joint research and development projects focused on biobased aromatics. Together with other partners, we were also able to produce initial laboratory-scale quantities of the important basic chemical aniline entirely from biomass. To date, aniline has been manufactured worldwide solely from fossil resources such as petroleum. Our next research steps aim to scale up the production of biobased aniline, ultimately enabling industrial-scale production. Aniline is used in the chemical industry as a feedstock for numerous products and at Covestro for manufacturing a precursor for polyurethane insulation foam.
Covestro and our partners also engage in dialog with political decision-makers on seminal issues. In the interests of providing a platform for the interdisciplinary exchange of ideas relating to sustainable sources of raw materials, Covestro organized a raw materials summit in 2017 in collaboration with the Technical University of Berlin and DECHEMA Gesellschaft für Chemische Technik und Biotechnologie in Berlin. During the reporting period, the summit was held for the second time in Berlin, sponsored by the German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). The participants discussed the use of renewable resources as a replacement for petroleum in the chemical industry. Five international start-ups were honored as 2018 Resource Innovators at this event.
In 2018, Covestro also made further significant progress in the use of plant-based raw materials in plastics production with the aim of reducing dependence on fossil resources and improving the CO2 footprint of production. These biobased hardeners, which contain up to 70% carbon sourced from biomass, are used not only for traditional coating and adhesives applications such as in the furniture industry for example, they are also particularly important in our specialty solutions for textiles, cosmetics and elastomers as well as in thermoplastic elastomers, now part of our Coatings, Adhesives, Specialties (CAS) segment.
As well as optimizing its own processes, Covestro also helps customers to develop and roll out sustainable and environmentally friendly CAS systems. In China in particular, we were able to tap into the market trend and support our customers in shifting to less solvent-intensive or water-based systems. We also developed hardeners, binding agents and formulations tailored to the local Chinese market. Based on a strong product portfolio, we will continue our work on water-based systems.
As part of our sustainability program, Covestro is also developing materials and technologies for generating renewable energy, with a current focus on wind power. In particular, Covestro has developed innovative technology for manufacturing rotor blades for wind turbines. A special casting system is used to produce the innovative rotor blades from polyurethane resin and woven fiberglass. The first polyurethane wind turbine in the world is being tested for electricity generation by a Chinese customer: a 2.2 megawatt wind turbine from Envision powered by TMT-manufactured rotor blades. At a length of 59.5 meters, the three-component polyurethane blades exceed the properties achievable to date. The outer coating consists of epoxy.
To better leverage Covestro’s own internal innovation potential the company runs a global “Start-up Challenge” employee innovation program specifically to promote creativity, ideas and entrepreneurial thinking at Covestro. Employees from all divisions had the opportunity to submit their business and project ideas to Covestro products and corporate goals in the second half of 2017. Around 600 employees from all over the world participated in the Group-wide contest. The winning team was announced in February 2018. Its members were partly released from their work duties for a year and given a project budget of €1 million to implement their project idea. The next milestone will be to develop the prototype for a new product for automotive paint shops for testing on the market. Furthermore, the other ideas submitted are also being systematically pursued.