Sustainable raw materials from plants and CO2 are increasingly being considered as an alternative to oil in the production of chemical products.
Companies and investors, as well as science and politics see promising prospects here.
This is the conclusion of the Raw Materials Summit 2018, which took place at the Technical University of Berlin under the patronage of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
The participants called for the further development and use of non-fossil resources in order to make chemistry more sustainable and climate-friendly.
Young companies in particular could make a major contribution to this.
Five start-ups from three continents were selected as "Resource Innovators 2018" at the summit.
The event was again organised jointly by the TU Berlin, the DECHEMA Gesellschaft für Chemische Technik und Biotechnologie and the materials manufacturer Covestro.
It highlighted Germany's leading role as an innovative location for alternative raw materials in the chemical and plastics industries.
Numerous new products based on plant biomass and CO2 have recently been launched on the market, such as components for high-quality foams.
This saves fossil resources such as oil and improves the sustainability balance sheets of chemical producers and numerous downstream industries.
Selective research funding through politics
"The turnaround in energy and raw materials is one of the major challenges of the 21st century.
“Germany wants and must show that this change process can succeed while maintaining our prosperity," said Dr Georg Schütte, State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Research and Education.
"Innovative technologies already make it possible today to produce the sustainable chemicals and fuels of the future.
“We support the substitution of fossil raw materials by targeted research funding in the field of bioeconomics and the use of CO2.
“This is also how we secure our international competitiveness."
Dr Erika Bellmann, Policy Advisor at the environmental organisation WWF Germany, also called for a departure from fossil sources: "With our focus on coal, gas and oil, we have caused severe damage in recent decades: we have triggered the climate crisis with them and continue to heat it up.
“We must therefore move away from fossil raw materials and towards new ones.
“But new is not automatically better: Sustainability must be a key criterion in the development of new raw materials.
“The goal must be a successful, environmentally friendly and climate-neutral industry."
The event also emphasised Berlin's role as a research location for green chemistry.
For example, the new Chemical Invention Factory, which is being built on the campus of the Technical University, offers new opportunities for setting up companies in the university environment and for the direct transfer of science to business.
New ideas in competition
The summit also set a signal for a more entrepreneurial spirit with an international ideas competition: Five start-ups from Australia, Germany, Great Britain, Latvia and the USA presented projects in which plants and CO2 are used as carbon sources instead of oil.
First place was taken by the Australian company Mineral Carbonation International.
The start-up takes carbon dioxide from waste gases as an alternative feedstock and transforms it together with minerals into building materials and other valuable industrial products.
At the summit, Professor Kurt Wagemann, CEO of DECHEMA, emphasised the importance of such young companies: "We must recognise the task of the chemical industry to bring together several technologies in order to find more sustainable solutions to the pressing questions of our time.
“Start-ups play a decisive role here."
Create a suitable innovation climate
Dr Markus Steilemann, CEO of Covestro, emphasised that good ideas must lead to concrete sustainable products as quickly as possible.
"This is only possible through close cooperation within the private sector and application-oriented cooperation with scientific partners.
“And we need a suitable climate for innovation with more courage to take risks."
Professor Dieter Jahn, member of the High-Tech Gründerfonds advisory board, regretted that there are still relatively few start-ups in the chemical industry.
"But that must change, because chemistry is the basis for many other industries, and innovations are needed in ever shorter time.
“To achieve this, start-ups need the appropriate infrastructure from the business community and politics."
Professor Reinhard Schomäcker from the Institute of Chemistry at the Technical University of Berlin advocated the establishment of modern structures and processes in the university landscape to facilitate a close exchange between science and industry.