On 18th and 19th November 2019, ENSCMu, ECPM and ENSIC organised the Journées de la Fédération Gay-Lussac conference, the theme of which was “Chemistry: industry for the future?” Jérôme Cassayre, Head of Crop Protection Research Chemistry at Syngenta, took part in a round table discussion on the future of chemistry and chemical engineering and the current challenges facing these fields. We asked him to talk to us about the future of the industry, and how our schools can best prepare for it.
In what ways is chemistry an “industry of the future”?
Chemistry is the basis for all living things. It’s present everywhere you look. As an industry, it has proven its ability to evolve in response to changes in society. We owe increases in life expectancy to advances in chemistry in terms of hygiene, agriculture and medical care. Chemistry is also part of our day-to-day lives and interactions.
I would describe chemistry as a resilient discipline. It’s a field that has successfully adapted and evolved in response to the changing demands of the population.
Today, chemistry finds itself at a new crossroads, and once again it is going to need to reinvent itself if it is to fulfil the requirements of modern-day society. The major challenge facing our industry is this: it’s no longer about making chemistry EVERYTHING, it’s about making chemistry BETTER.
What are the biggest challenges that the chemistry industry will face in coming years?
Making chemistry better means embracing the era of sustainability. One of the biggest challenges will be to change the mindset of chemists. In that respect, I would like to highlight three lines of action:
- Becoming less dependent on fossil resources – this is a big challenge, because at present, petroleum is the basis for 80% of chemical products.
- Designing products that are more environmentally-friendly, which means considering product life cycles right from the beginning of the design process. In other words, what is the added value of the product, and how will the product change and deteriorate after it has been used?
- Developing manufacturing processes that are safer and that consume less energy and generate less waste.
Is that what’s referred to as green chemistry?
The concept of green chemistry emerged around twenty years ago in the USA, and for a long time it was considered something of a niche enterprise. However, it is now a reality for the majority of companies today. There are two main aspects:
- Designing products that meet the needs of society while also taking into account food safety and impacts on health and the environment. We are now able to integrate these parameters further and further upstream in our product manufacturing processes.
- Manufacturing procedures that take into account the sustainability of a product, both in terms of how it is produced, and its impact on the environment in the long term.
In summary, green chemistry should help us to significantly reduce our global carbon footprint.
We also have a duty to educate the public on scientific topics. All human activity has an impact, and that’s something the general public can understand. But we have to prove that we’re doing everything possible to minimise that impact. That’s the first step in rebuilding dialogue between the industry and society at large.
In my department, this year we achieved a 50% reduction in our consumption of solvents that are difficult to recycle. At term, through research and development, we hope that we will be able to find alternative products and completely eliminate this type of solvent. I’ve noticed a high level of engagement among employees regarding these projects.
What changes do you predict within companies in the chemistry industry?
The biggest internal change will be increasing automation of real-time data generation and analysis processes.
Furthermore, the digital revolution is set to further the development of many areas of green chemistry in that it provides virtual methods of testing a large number of hypotheses very quickly. This means that processes can be improved before moving on to the laboratory testing phase.
A lot of chemical engineers are worried about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and think that computers are going to replace them. In reality, AI is going to help chemical engineers achieve more. Its exceptional efficiency means it can be used as a rapid decision-making aid. Creativity, of course, is another matter, and will always require human input.
What skills do the chemical engineers of the future need to demonstrate?
The chemistry industry needs to attract new talent and improve its image and reputation.
In terms of training, I think there are four challenges to be addressed:
- Training students in digital sciences and technologies: One of the main challenges involves reintegrating mathematics into a fundamentally experimental science like chemistry. A lot of young people choose to study chemistry because maths doesn’t appeal to them.
- Defining leadership as a core skill for engineers: The best chemists are those who are able to apply what they’ve learned to internal and external strategic environments. People skills and the ability to manage projects are just as important as scientific knowledge. We’ve noticed that the new graduates we recruit find teamwork quite challenging, because they’ve been trained to work competitively.
Also, engineers often focus more on finding solutions to problems than on identifying the root causes. Engineers of the future will need to be able to decide where to focus their efforts. In my opinion, a company should spend 90% of its time on identifying issues, and the other 10% on resolving them.
- Making young chemists aware of the challenges inherent in their activity: All change begins with awareness. Chemical engineers need to see themselves as scientific citizens, and not focus solely on experiments and results.
- Foster a multidisciplinary approach and a global mindset by promoting dialogue during training. Between them, the 300 people at our site represent 25 different nationalities! Our strength stems from this diversity.
What would you say to young people who are thinking about studying chemistry?
Chemistry is a changing discipline. It’s a wonderful science that forms the basis for life and society and that sits at the interface of a number of fields: computer science, biology, physics, medicine. A degree in chemistry can open up doors to an extraordinary variety of careers.
Anyone who has studied science is sure to find something they’re really passionate about.