The chemistry of the future
is the future
of mankind

‘There are no limits to
what science can explore’

Countless ingenious applications in our daily lives are the result of bright minds not thinking about products, but about universes and nanoparticles. “There are no limits to what science can explore,” Ernest Solvay once said. That hopeful message could save our planet.

Ernest Solvay
a world-famous industrial scientist

Ernest Solvay is one of the greatest industrialists Belgium has ever known. The legendary founder of the Solvay empire had no qualifications in chemistry – he missed out on a university education because of a lung condition – but he was a scientist at heart. About 150 years ago, he developed a large-scale production process in his basement to make soda out of ammonia – the Industrial Revolution had seen a boom in the use of soda for glass production.

Solvay, a Belgian
high-tech multinational

The company Ernest and his brother Alfred founded in 1863 grew exponentially, even briefly becoming the biggest multinational in the world before the First World War. The listed chemical and materials group now employs 27,000 people in 58 countries. Five years ago, the glass processing industry was Solvay’s main customer, but now the company’s main clients are aircraft manufacturers and the makers of smart devices who use Solvay’s metal replacement materials for high-tech applications.

Science
becomes poetry

However, being remembered for this success – as impressive as it might be – wouldn’t have pleased Ernest Solvay.

He was blessed with an open mind and a curiosity about the world, so he seized the financial independence that his successful business gave him to focus on his passion for science.

The Solvay Conferences that have been held in Belgium nearly every year since 1911 are his greatest legacy. The world’s leading scientists meet at these conferences to discuss fundamental scientific questions. In their efforts to advance science, they battle amongst themselves with passion and spirit to find the truth.

“Some of them can give such a short and clear fundamental explanation for an extremely complex problem that it becomes poetry. Intense discussions ensue. The concentration of energy, passion and intensity on display is fundamentally driven by the scientists’ curiosity about how the world works. It’s an intense human adventure,” explains Jean-Marie Solvay. He heads up the International Solvay Institutes for Physics and Chemistry, founded in 1912 by his great-great-grandfather and located since 1970 on the campus of the Belgian universities VUB and ULB.

Jean-Marie Solvay

The Brussels anterooms
of the Nobel Prize

Several distinguished scientists met in Brussels last month too to discuss the topic ‘The physics of living matter: space, time and information in biology’. The subjects discussed at the Solvay Conferences, which traditionally take place in the Hotel Metropole in Brussels, read like a long list of scientific breakthroughs. At the 1953 conference, for example, the world heard for the very first time about the DNA molecule’s double helix structure – a finding that proved essential to be able to map human genome. “Much of the success of these conferences and of open innovation is the ability to approach a problem from a different perspective; “Such different views help shake things up.” one year the focus is on chemistry and the next year it’s on physics,” says Jean-Marie Solvay.

The largest
meeting of brilliant minds

  • 1911
  • 1913
  • 1924
  • 1927
  • 1930
  • 1933
  • 1951
  • 1954
  • 1958
  • 1961
  • 1964
  • 1967
  • 1970
  • 1973
  • 1982
  • 1984
  • 1998
  • 2001
  • 2005
  • 2008
  • 2011
  • 2014

The 1927 conference in particular is one that really stands out in the history books. The conference that year was all about the newly formulated quantum theory, with Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr the most prominent opposing voices in this field. Einstein had a problem with the theory’s philosophical foundation; he couldn’t accept that probability and the theory of probability could play a major role, and famously said that “God does not play dice”.

The world may never have seen as many brilliant minds gather in the same place as in that last week of October 1927. Of the 29 attendees, 17 would eventually go on to win the Nobel Prize. Many of their names still impress today. Besides Bohr and Einstein, there was Marie Curie (radioactive radiation in cancer treatment), Werner Heisenberg (uncertainty principle), Erwin Schrödinger (Schrödinger’s cat), Max Planck (quantum theory) and Hendrik Lorentz (electron).

With catholic priest and cosmologist George Lemaître (1894-1966), Belgium was also well represented. Lemaître, although not present at the meeting, discovered in 1927 that the universe is not static, but that it keeps on expanding, and that it must have started out in some small corner. That makes him the father of the Big Bang theory. Einstein was initially very critical of Lemaître because his theory was at odds with Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein later had to acknowledge that the modest Belgian was right after all.

No GPS without fundamental research

Most of the scientists at the Solvay Conferences are not primarily working on solutions to everyday problems or concrete applications, although those are often what ultimately emerge. Research on the GPS navigation system started in the 1960s and built on Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity. Theoretical chemical insights led to the production of materials such as composites, which have similar properties to steel but are far lighter, thereby considerably reducing the energy consumption of cars and planes.

Exciting times
for chemists

Chemistry is called the ‘central science’ because it has such a large impact on related fields like physics, material sciences and life sciences. “These are exciting times. Chemistry allows you to control the molecular structure of almost all materials, from new drugs or polymers to anodes and cathodes for lithium-ion batteries that are important for storing green energy. Chemistry builds from the bottom up, and that drives innovation. The influence of chemistry in the next 20 years will be huge,” says Peter Schulz excitedly. As chairman of The Scripps Research Institute in California and Calibr, he is a highly-respected scientist. These two major American biomedical research institutes focus on cell therapy for cancer and medications for multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and tuberculosis. In 2013, Schulz was awarded the prestigious Chemistry of the Future Solvay Prize for his work.

The influence of chemistry in the next 20 years will be huge

Peter Schultz

Until recently, scientists only dealt with fundamental research, gathering knowledge for the sake of it; practical applications came almost entirely from the industry. This is changing, however. The academic world – especially young scientists – is showing increasing interest in the real impact of its research on society. Mixing the worlds of fundamental and applied sciences with a dose of serendipity often results in new discoveries.

The academic world is showing increasing interest in the real impact of its research on society

Break out of
your company

Open innovation, where inventions are circulated freely and innovations result from collaborations, is totally in keeping with the ideas of Ernest Solvay. “You can no longer innovate if you stay locked behind the walls of your company,” stresses Nicolas Cudré-Mauroux, the Swiss-born head of Solvay’s Research and Innovation Department. “If you don’t participate in open innovation, you’ll bump up against the limits of your own technology. If companies want to give customers what they’re looking for, then they have to work together with external parties, such as universities and research institutes.”

Nicolas Cudré-Mauroux

InnovationApplied
science
Fundamental
science

A long-haul race

Open innovation does have a sting in its tail. As the knowledge is accessible to everyone, competitors can come up with practical applications more quickly than those who have invested the most. “It’s a race,” says Cudré-Mauroux with a smile. When developing solutions, Solvay must of course consider the economic reality, but the company does this with the whole lifecycle of a product in mind. “A carbon fibre composite bonnet is more expensive than a metal one because both the raw materials and the production are more expensive. But after a few thousand kilometres, that additional cost is recouped because the lighter weight saves fuel.

A battery
of innovations

In the past few months, the popularity of electric cars has boomed. Shortly after the first ‘cheap’ Tesla came on the market, almost all major car manufacturers announced they would soon be launching only hybrid or fully electric models. The success of these cars depends on their range, which at the moment is about 300 kilometres for a fully electric model. “With our technology, we must be able to double the autonomous capacity of those cars in the next 10 years,” says Cudré-Mauroux. “The car industry is counting on us.

This makes a lot of sense, since Solvay plays a key role when it comes to battery technology and works with all the major car manufacturers. The company’s polymers can be found in such components as the casings of batteries in electric cars and smartphones, and they contribute to improved performance and safety.

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A battery
of innovations

Batteries are not the only components that incorporate Solvay innovations for cleaner transport. The Solar Impulse plane is a prime example of this. As the plane’s first partner, Solvay provided 6,000 products to enable the airplane to fly around the world using solar energy only. For instance, the metal in the wings, tail surfaces and engines was replaced with lightweight materials to reduce energy consumption.

Solvay has expanded this specialisation in metal replacement materials with composites for cars and aircrafts. “Our next step is to combine the knowledge of these two materials and continue innovating. This has helped us write a new chapter in the history of material technology,” says Cudré-Mauroux. “Our innovations are inextricably linked to sustainability, the growth engine of our group.”

Shaping
our world

It may all sound serious and business-like, but there is also a firm belief behind all that science that the better you understand your environment, the better you can shape it. Science can also be a beacon of certainty in times of doubt. No one knows what the US President will tweet about next and what effect that will have, but the force with which an apple falls from a tree in Cambridge is still the same as when Isaac Newton formulated his theory on gravity in that very same Cambridge in 1687.

Science not only reassures us, but also gives us the hope that we can answer the challenges we face. The world’s population is well on its way to reaching almost 10 billion by 2050. Fossil fuels – still a significant part of our energy supply – are running out and global warming continues.

The answer
to today’s
challenges

Society at large expects scientists to provide solutions for enough food, more renewable energy and less CO2. “The good news is that scientists can make that happen, if we start on time,” says Peter Schultz, an American professor of chemistry. That said, we shouldn’t sit back and assume that scientists will get these jobs done all by themselves. “Scientists can’t do this alone. It’s all about the choices we have to make as a society. And these choices also involve sacrifices. Unfortunately, that message still hasn’t sunk in sufficiently with decision-makers like politicians and business leaders. They often don’t have enough scientific knowledge to assess the scope of the problems.” Schultz was awarded the prestigious Chemistry of the Future Solvay Prize in 2013 for his own work. Chemistry also has an image problem, unfortunately. “The word ‘chemistry’ makes many people think of pollution. So we could really use some good PR to highlight its positive impact on our lives.”

Peter Schultz

A car
the size of a pinhead

The Solvay Group celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013 with the creation of a prestigious award. The biennial Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize worth €300,000 rewards a major scientific discovery with the potential to shape the chemistry of tomorrow and further human progress.

The last recipient was Ben Feringa, a Dutch chemist who received the award for his research on molecular robots, such as cars smaller than a pinhead driving in millionths of a millimetre. Feringa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year for that very same research.

For more than two decades now, Solvay has also been granting its annual Solvay Awards to outstanding students and researchers in chemistry, physics and engineering associated with the Belgian universities ULB and VUB. In addition, the company supports an annual award for young chemists from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

A fundamental
choice for
fundamental science

Chemistry should, however, be able to sell its merits more easily than a scientific branch like physics, simply because the link between basic research and practical innovations is much more visible.

“Physicists look at the stars and the theoretical laws of the universe. Chemists look at molecules and the characteristics you can deduce from them,” explains Jean-Marie Solvay. “But fundamental research is important for both. Someone who discovers a new material doesn’t do that with the idea at the back of their mind of building a lighter or stronger aircraft.”

One of those people is Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn from Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg. Lehn also sits on the jury for the Chemistry of the Future Solvay Prize. “It may sound harsh, but for me the social importance of my discoveries is secondary to the discovering itself. Without fundamental research you gain no knowledge, and hence no applications. I focus on the former – you can only do so much.”

Professor Lehn received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1987, together with Donald Cram and Charles Pedersen. They discovered that the three-dimensional shape of molecules is crucial to their chemical and biological functions. Hormones and enzymes, for instance, can link to cells, like keys that fit a lock. The scientists also developed synthetic molecules that mimic the behaviour of enzymes. Among other things, that makes it possible to develop tailor-made medication. “The fact that I’m not developing all this myself doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the applications resulting from my discoveries.”

Jean-Marie Lehn

Humans too are just
a collection of molecules

“Not everyone needs to become a scientist – what a boring world that would be – but everyone should get some scientific instruction,” says top chemist Jean-Marie Lehn. “Physics is all about the laws of nature and the universe. Biology tries to figure out the living organism. Chemistry is the bridge between the two. We should pique the curiosity of all secondary school students, and if we take the right approach, then we can certainly succeed.”

He immediately shows what he means with a concrete example. “Everyone should understand what molecules are. They’re made of atoms, like a house is made of bricks. Molecular chemistry looks at how you build molecules and that can lead to new materials or new medications. But you can also go further and start building with different kinds of molecules, what we call supramolecular chemistry. Every living organism is a collection of molecules, which interact with each other in a supramolecular way. Humans are built that way too, although we sometimes find this an uncomfortable idea.”

Fundamental and applied research
go hand in hand

Vincent Ginis doesn’t see such a big difference between fundamental and applied research. “History has shown that the two go hand in hand,” says the young researcher affiliated with VUB and Harvard University. There are very high hopes for his research into the interaction between light and matter. “It’s not that after years of fundamental research the baton is passed to the applied scientist who then makes things using the results of that research. Galileo described our solar system, but to pursue that fundamental research he first had to build a telescope. Einstein got the idea of special relativity when he was working as a clerk in a patent office and was reviewing a patent to make clocks run more accurately.

Vincent Ginis

More science,
less fiction

In 2014, Ginis received the Solvay Award, a prize for outstanding students and researchers in chemistry, physics and engineering. It illustrates that entanglement. “Since Einstein, we know that light, because of the curvature of the universe, can follow a curved path. That can also happen in other circumstances, such as close to the ground in the desert. The much higher temperature near the surface changes the material properties of the air and bends the light. My research is about nanoparticles that bend the light in a way that makes objects invisible.”

It sounds like science fiction, but with more and more science and less and less fiction. Scientists have already succeeded in making static objects see-through by bending light, provided that, like the person watching, they remain still. New breakthroughs that make invisibility ‘move’ enable surgeons to operate without their hands blocking their view or truckers to see their blind spot through their truck.

Call
to wonder

Whether it’s science or science fiction, Ginis is struck by the fact that society at large is no longer as excited by research and technology like this. “All too often, we think it’s logical that scientific progress delivers magical improvements, without us actually finding them magical any more. As if it were simply a law of nature that our computers are getting smaller or that we’re able to view 3D images. We need to encourage more people to think about how beautifully the world fits together and how amazing that is.”
This will also be the subject of his speech at the presentation of this year’s Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize. Ginis acknowledges, however, that it has to be a fair deal. “If scientists want to inform and involve the public more, then they have to translate their insights into everyday language. That would be good for them too; clear language without the technical jargon encourages clear thinking. This would also bring the disciplines closer together.”