Shott: UK chemical industry should focus on strengths

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

FORMER IChemE president Ian Shott says that the huge UK chemical industry must focus on its strengths – including biotechnology and process intensification if it is to grow. 

Shott was discussing his work with the Chemistry Growth Partnership (CGP), an industry-government initiative to build the UK chemical industry, and funding body Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) at a media dinner hosted by the Chemical Industry Association (CIA) on 14 September.

 “Chemistry is a fundamental technology, a fundamental science, and the chemical industry is a fundamental foundation industry. Its products permeate into many other sectors,” said Shott. “If we look at paints, coatings, upstream composite manufacture, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, consumer products, they are all manufactured using chemical process technology.”

The UK chemical industry is worth around £200bn (US$271bn) annually to the UK economy. However, Shott said that in the past, the industry has failed to capitalise on its strengths, including its innovation and R&D base in universities and research institutions, and failed to adopt advanced technologies including digitalisation and artificial intelligence. The CGP strategy is designed to ensure the industry can capitalise on its strengths.

“I believe in focus, and trying to do a few things really well. We’ve chosen to focus on three things,” said Shott.

The first focus area is biotechnology and synthetic biology, which Shott believes will be “disruptive and transformative”. Moore’s Law, he said, states that the power of computer processors will double and the cost halve every 18 months. The rate of change in the cost of decoding the genome has been double that since the human genome was decoded. The UK has six synthetic biology research centres to capitalise on this rapidly expanding technology.

“Genetic modification using CRISPR technology can make enzymes to manufacture products in a completely new way, with fewer stages, less solvents, better energy usage, lower water usage and lower environmental contamination. It’s already quite staggering,” he said, adding: “The effect of this is that I think in some cases we could transform the cost and environmental impact of making chemicals by one order of magnitude.”

The second focus area should be process intensification, using computation methods and a better understanding of thermodynamics and process kinetics to move from batch production to continuous production, particularly in high value, small volume chemicals such as pharmaceutical APIs. This, Shott believes, could transform the UK pharmaceutical industry. However, the technology could serve all fine and speciality chemical production, including coatings, food additives, vitamins and agrochemicals.

The final focus area is high performance materials, especially in the aerospace and automotive sectors. Shott said that the UK is already a world-leader in this area. Around 80% of the technology for Formula 1 racing comes from the UK, and commercial car companies such as Volkswagen, BMW, Renault, Nissan and Ford use UK technology. Battery technology for electrification, composites for lightweighting and energy storage technologies are increasingly important.

“The missing link is the formulators, the designers of the process chemistry to bridge the link between the structures and the fundamental chemistry, so there’s a massive opportunity there,” said Shott.

As well as improving the economy as a whole, growing the chemical industry will have important local effects. Shott pointed out that the UK government is keen to narrow the economic gap between the wealthy southeast of England, and weaker economic areas such as the northeast and northwest of England, and Scotland.

“We’re unique amongst all the other sectors in having a distribution that is in high concentration in those weaker economic areas, and if the government wanted to back one sector to achieve its biggest political objectives, it could do a lot worse than back our sector,” Shott said.

The UK chemical industry, he said, has a big opportunity, but it is important to align its strategy with the government’s, so that the country does not again lose out in the race with others.

“The way we tried to fashion the technology strategy was to plot a chart where we had an understanding of what Britain’s strengths were in terms of fundamental research and an understanding of how big the global opportunity was, and gain an understanding of where we were positioned on those axes. We looked at places where we are already very strong on the science and technology, but also positioned to win, not lose, on the global opportunity. These three areas I’ve articulated, I think meet those criteria,” Shott concluded.

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

Senior reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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