From Science to Sustainability

Aug. 7, 2010
The link between leading-edge research and greener materials and products.

Whether they specialize in fuel additives or flame retardants, in plastics or planes, many of today's leading manufacturers seek more environmentally friendly ways to design, develop and produce new materials. Bringing greener products to market is one important goal-airplanes that consume less fuel, plastics that use recycled materials, tires that that can be made without petroleum-based oils, for example.

But the design and development process itself can be wasteful, drive up costs and delay time-to-market. Some experiments may cause toxic or hazardous reactions, resources are drained following research dead ends, great product ideas end up requiring a costly or scarce raw material. As a result, it is equally important to look at how R&D can be practiced in a more efficient and sustainable manner.

Innovation will play a critical role in driving positive change, and smart organizations can start by leveraging some of the same research approaches that are being applied to the design and development of cutting-edge products. These include advanced chemistry, time-saving "virtual" experimentation, and more streamlined, integrated information management.

Let's examine a couple of these areas in greater detail:

Integrated Information Management

Information is an organization's most valuable resource, yet all too often it is not treated as such. The global reach of corporate enterprises today means that critical knowledge can easily get trapped in departmental, system and geographic silos-the research scientists don't end up sharing data with processing engineers, the processing engineers aren't communicating enough with procurement specialists, regulatory experts aren't brought into design planning early enough and so on.

For example, R&D scientists have not traditionally been rewarded for coming up with materials that are easy to make, they've been rewarded for discovering something new, better, or more functional than what's come before. But novel discoveries also need to translate into products that are safe, cost-effective to source and manufacture, and commercially and ecologically viable.

In a climate where time-to-market timelines are continually shrinking, the research and innovation side of the house must be more closely aligned with the development and manufacturing side. This is where an end-to-end, web services-based foundation for information sharing and collaboration comes into play. Call it "scientific business intelligence." Organizations need to be able to easily access and integrate critical data across the entire product design and development pipeline so that issues such as environmental fate and safety can be factored into the product lifecycle from day one. By connecting disparate information sources-such as data from chemical, biological and materials databases and instruments, from modeling and simulation analyses, from various organizational departments, and more-project teams can make better, faster and smarter decisions that have a direct impact on product sustainability.

Green Chemistry

Chemistry is central to the development of most industrial and consumer products, whether it's polymers used in everything from plastic containers to plane parts, or fibers, pigments, metal oxides, adhesives and solvents that serve a multitude of purposes in industries such as building construction, agriculture, consumer packaged goods, transportation and more. There are several key areas where advanced chemistry can help drive green innovation. The first is the design phase of the R&D process, where the replacement of petro chemicals with more sustainable source materials results in greener end products.

For example, Yokohama Tire Corp. has designed a compound consisting of orange oil and natural rubber that it now uses in its race and passenger car tires, reducing petroleum use. Chemical synthesis is another area that comes into play for companies seeking to prevent waste, avoid toxic or hazardous byproducts and maximize output. Primary goals here are to reduce the amount of raw materials (such as water or other ingredients) that are required to produce commercially viable amounts of an end product, and avoid reactions that cause a toxic release. (Chrome is a good example of an end product that is no longer viable due to the extremely toxic byproducts its synthesis produces.)

And finally, manufacturers can also turn to chemistry to address end-of-life issues-by designing biodegradable packaging for example, or in considering how to re-use discarded materials in new products. Thus, an advanced understanding of how materials are engineered at the nano- and atomic scale (where chemistry is central) is step one in achieving the right combination of functionality, marketability and sustainability. Step two is being able to efficiently access and share advanced chemical data through the modernized information management approach addressed above.

Virtual Experimentation

Many ideas never end up making it as commercial products. Perhaps a promising new high-strength plastic produces unacceptable amounts of cyanide during synthesis. Or a shampoo formulation doesn't have the right viscosity (i.e., flow and thickness) that consumers prefer. But relying on traditional, trial-and-error lab experimentation to understand a potential formulation or material's expected performance, safety or energy efficiency can eat up a great deal of time, money, and, of course, resources.

Technology that facilitates modeling and simulation of chemical compounds and materials presents a compelling and sustainable alternative. Used widely in pharmaceutical research, software-enabled scientific modeling and analytic techniques make it possible for researchers to design and test products in silico (i.e., computationally). Instead of running multiple experiments in a lab, researchers can take advantage of simulations to virtually explore a broad range of ideas and better understand the trade offs in terms of safety, environmental impact, performance, etc.-before doing any actual chemical synthesis or live testing. For example, analytic models can leverage existing data sets (again, efficient and integrated information access is critical here) to quickly and reliably predict the behavior of thousands of potential formulations and mixtures, allowing researchers to identify candidates that offer the greatest chance of being safe, stable and sustainable.

The advantages of virtual approaches are two-fold. One, resources that would have been used during extensive experimentation are saved. Two, product design experts can investigate far more options than would be possible through lab experiments alone, and are thus more likely to quickly hit upon the greenest and most commerically viable solution. (Consider Yokohama's discovery of the value of orange oil!)

Designing products that are safer, cleaner and more resource efficient is not just "green," it's good business. Sustainable R&D practices help companies address regulatory issues, reduce costs, project a better image and take advantage of new markets. All it takes is applying the same level of innovation to sustainability that companies already employ to improve product performance.

Michael Doyle, Ph.D., is Principal Application Scientist at Accelrys , a leading provider of scientific informatics software and solutions for the life sciences, energy, chemicals, aerospace and consumer products industries. His blog can be found at:

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