Eni’s art of chemistry

 By Nicholas Newman

We use chemicals and plastics in everything we do, including the clothes we wear, the gadgets we play with and the cars we drive. In fact, modern life would be almost impossible without the many chemicals that scientists have discovered and developed over the decades. This feature takes a look at the story behind Versalis innovations in chemicals and plastics, and especially focus on its new green chemistry product developments…

Chemicals, plastics and elastomers are an essential component of everyday’s life, the clothes we wear, the gadgets we play with and the cars we drive. In fact, modern life would be almost impossible without the many chemicals which scientists have been developing over the last century. What may surprise many people is that Versalis, one of Europe’s leading chemical companies, is owned by one of the world’s largest firms, Italian energy giant Eni. With strategies refocused in 2012, this chemical company has a turnover of around 5 billion euros and employs some 5,000 people.

Versalis is Italy’s largest chemical company by sales and manages the production and marketing of a wide portfolio of chemicals and polymers which are used in applications ranging from car parts, large appliances, insulation, food packaging, to toy manufacturing. For its customers, the company produces many basic intermediate products, polyethylene (one in three plastic objects is made from polyethylene), polystyrene, used for household appliances, building insulation, industrial and food packaging, and elastomers used for tires, footwear and as key components in the formulation and production of quality adhesives, rubber, coatings and inks.

These sit alongside the marketing of tailored chemical products – the so-called oilfield chemicals – essential in oil and gas production operations. Capitalizing on the company’s key competitive advantages of know-how, technological leadership and a culture of innovation, Versalis has expanded into “green chemistry” or bio-based products, to develop environmentally sustainable greener feedstocks in the production of a range of chemicals and building blocks. Supported by around 40 specialized researchers, the green chemistry division is working to lead the way to a future of green or sustainable chemicals and plastics and hopes to keep abreast of the progressively tougher environmental regulations governing energy, transport and industrial products. This feature will examine the story behind the firm’s innovations in chemicals and plastics, and focus on its new green chemistry product developments.

Versalis proprietary technology

Innovations in traditional petrochemicals and plastics

In Europe, the market for petrochemical and plastics is constantly evolving as customer needs change and tougher regulations emerge. This environment of almost continuous change is very demanding on chemical research and development teams, always requiring improvements and innovations.

For chemical companies like Versalis, this means having an R&D program with a portfolio of R&D projects well balanced between the short-medium and long-term and with different timing of implementation (i.e. with a relevant investment or down to minor plant modifications or even just change of product recipes). The traditional polyethylene business is a case in point since Versalis has introduced several post-synthesis modifications, such as a cross-linked High-density polyethylene (HDPE) grade for rotomolding. These incremental innovations endow containers as well as natural gas pipes with higher mechanical and chemical resistance whilst the development of elastomeric compounds create multi-layer industrial film packaging with remarkable elastic properties.

Environmental protection measures in both Europe and America combined with consumers’ desire for highly sustainable solutions  have provided innovative chemical companies with new market opportunities. As a result, Versalis has responded by developing a commercial portfolio focused on the introduction of a new generation  elastomers grades (i.e. styrene/butadiene-based polymers modified with functionalized groups) for high performance car and truck tires, that minimize fuel consumption, provide top-level safety and have an improved sustainable profile.

For car manufacturers, Versalis is offering new grades of Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer (EPDM). EPDM is a type of synthetic rubber, used in a wide range of applications including car window seals, engine hoses and belts, as well as in building products such as double glazing seals, washers for radiators and garden hoses. Its very low gel levels help improve product consistency and aesthetics, and can translate into less production waste. As a result, this enables car component manufacturers greater flexibility in polymer design of products, but with the advantage of very few production plant modifications.

The styrenics division, which produces a series of products for a range of plastics including polystyrene, has not been left out of the innovation drive. Variants of polystyrene can be used in a wide variety of products including, CD cases, disposable razors, insulation and packing materials. Versalis has been developing on a pilot scale the innovative Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) ‘One Step’ proprietary technology to enhance its portfolio of specialties and to enter new application segments with higher added value which will also be available for licensing activity in order to be more competitive on a world scale.

Versalis rubber world

Innovations in new ‘green-based’ chemicals and plastics

To ‘green’ its traditional fossil-based products, Versalis has introduced bio-additives or bio-intermediates to the product range to improve both the environmental footprint of existing production chains and, in some cases, the performance as well. For example, the Matrìca plant, from a joint venture with Novamont for a green chemistry hub in Porto Torres in northern Sardinia, has produced a new range of bio-based extender oils for synthetic rubbers for tyre applications.

Versalis is also designing a new integrated bio-refinery to extract latex/dry rubber and terpenic resins from guayule, a shrub that grows wild in the Chihuahan Desert in northern Mexico and in southern Texas, to leave a residual and exhausted bagasse (the dry pulpy residue left after the extraction of juice from the plant crop), which is useful for further transformation into 2G sugars suitable for high quality fermentation. In southern Italy the company is also undertaking experimental guayule farm trials to maximize biomass, rubber yield and improve the crop’s overall economic sustainability without genetic modifications.


Combining ‘green’ and traditional chemistry to produce innovatory processes and products

Based on the experience of the end-to-end process for bio-butadiene production, Versalis has put its know-how in the traditional chemistry — catalysis and process design — at the service of new green chemistry fermentation process. Co-operation in a pilot study with American-based bio-technology partner, Genomatica, has successfully produced bio-butadiene from sugars. Testing this bio- monomer for downstream polymerizations has proved its suitability for producing high performance, first-of-its-kind, bio-butadiene-based polymers.

And other innovations are in the pipeline. Extremely high performance tires will come from a new, wet mixing technology made possible by combining Versalis expertise in elastomers processes with its Chinese Eve/Ecombine/Mesnac partner’s experience in the fillers and compounding manufacturing area.

The role of innovation

Innovation is key to drive a sustainable chemical industry nowadays, although innovation has always been an intrinsic factor of chemistry in general, marking a history of breakthroughs, in the growth of this science urged by social and human needs. In maintaining the same roots, this approach to innovation has evolved into a leverage for competitiveness and a response to a mature customer awareness. For instance, the product impact on the environment and energy consumption are central to end–users’ choice, hence the growth of the ‘green’ business. Certainly, Versalis will never consider that competitiveness in its business can be driven solely by costs of production.


Versalis innovation/knowledge management culture

In Versalis, we can count on an integrated organization model that enables a real sharing of knowledge, that is key to successfully carrying out breakthrough projects, making the most of the professional background of our people,” says Versalis CEO Daniele Ferrari. He adds, “this enables us to squeeze the development process, from the moment an innovative product is conceived until it is available for the market.”

The  firm’s  R&D  is  closely  integrated  with  its Technology,  Engineering  and Licensing departments and each business unit has its own dedicated R&D unit; cross links ensure that knowledge and competencies are shared between different business units.  “All these capabilities are also made available for the benefit of licensing activities,  in order to ensure a continuous improvement of our licensed technologies  and  products.  Moreover,  the  firm’s  integration  model  encompasses acquisition of new competences; this clearly happens in our green business where partnerships bring opportunities to boost and enhance our knowledge,“ notes Ferrari.


Versalis working with other research bodies and innovators

 Since the launch of its turnaround plan in 2012, Versalis has strengthened and developed a well-established history of co-operation with R&D bodies, such as Italy’s National Research Council (CNR), ENEA, Italian and European universities, and also with industrial partners such as Genomatica, Eve/Ecombine/Mesnac or strategic customers. Any project has, of course, its own R&D project manager or technology manager — depending on the development stage of the project — who co-ordinates with internal units and external partners.

In a fast-changing world and globalized economy where the firm has to continue to evolve, compete and develop ever-changing capabilities in order to respond to market needs in a fast responsive manner, promotion of partnerships represents an effective approach for speeding up innovation,” says Ferrari.


The lessons other organizations can learn from the Versalis innovation culture

The perfect organization does not exist; the organization is always a balanced mix between company needs and available persons and profiles, in a way to better respond to market trends ” states Ferrari. The firm’s research activities are structured in a mainly horizontal manner in order to be more synergic in coordination with the businesses, moving to technology and engineering. Another very important contribution Versalis has explored is the setting up of project teams with different profiles/knowledge, to improve cross-fertilization and increase the success rate of breakthrough ideas.


The future of innovation at Versalis

For Versalis, innovation is a continuous process, from the initial spark of an idea, through the engineering process to the final implementation, either within their current industrial footprint, or in partnership with clients or third parties, or even in a license to a third party. This intellectual property production chain is in a virtuous process, feeding the company with innovation and providing revenues from licensing and engineering activities. In the short to medium term, the firm envisages a continuous improvement of its polymers products portfolio, in some cases with renewable intermediates to improve sustainability.

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.