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Chemical renewal

Dow invests in sugarcane as a renewable raw material for production of plastics

From the left: Henrique Noguchi and Iris Tébéka (standing), Fernanda Bueno and John Biggs (sitting), and Daniel Cardinali

Léo Ramos From the left: Henrique Noguchi and Iris Tébéka (standing), Fernanda Bueno and John Biggs (sitting), and Daniel CardinaliLéo Ramos

Dow Chemical Company was established in the late 19th century in the United States, and its current portfolio includes more than 5,000 products that are used as raw materials by a wide range of industries — such as automobiles, electronics, home appliances, energy, paints and coatings, agriculture, and personal care, to name a few. In 2012, Dow employed about 54,000 employees and reported $57 billion in worldwide sales, in addition to $1.6 billion invested in research and development (R&D). The company first established itself in Brazil by opening a sales office in 1956, and it now has more than 2,400 employees and 15 production facilities in the country. Approximately 300 technicians and researchers are employed at its four research centers in Brazil. The Dow office in the city of São Paulo houses not only a Dow research center, but also the company headquarters for Latin America. Last year, Dow reported $3.3 billion in sales in Brazil. “We have global projects looking into renewable raw materials, and our focus is on Brazil,” says chemical engineer John Biggs, 58, the company’s R&D Director for Latin America.

One of these projects, a collaboration with Japanese company Mitsui, aims to produce low density polyethylene from sugarcane ethanol. The material is used in the manufacture of flexible packaging, industrial films, and plastic goods. The two companies are partners in every stage of the project, which started with the planting of a 17,000-hectare sugarcane field and building an ethanol plant capable of producing 240,000 cubic meters of ethanol per year in the city of Santa Vitória, state of Minas Gerais. A processing plant for converting ethanol into ethylene and biopolymers will also be built as part of the project. Ethanol is converted into ethylene by dehydration, using a catalyst that accelerates the chemical reaction. “When the ethylene and water come out at the end of the process, they are already separated,” says the Englishman Biggs, who has worked at Dow since 1985 and in Brazil for almost nine years. “The water will be used in the steam production system for generating electrical power.”

Dow Química
R&D Center
São Paulo, Brazil
No. of employees
Principal products:
Raw materials for the automobile, electronics, home appliances, energy, paints and coatings, agriculture, and personal care industries

Daniel Albuquerque Cardinali, 28, renewable raw materials R&D engineer, has been a member of Biggs’ team since he first joined Dow in 2011 as a trainee. “More than 50% of new hires in this department are done through the annual trainee recruitment campaign,” says Biggs. Dow receives roughly 14,000 applications per year for its 50 trainee openings, eight of them in the research department. When he was hired, Cardinali was a first-year master’s degree student in materials engineering and science at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) — where he had also obtained his undergraduate degree in materials engineering. His work is divided into two fronts: one is research and development of new technological routes for renewable materials; the other is new business development — in other words, identifying interesting partnership opportunities for Dow with other companies, research institutes, or universities. “Innovation at Dow is based on collaborations with Brazilian and international partners,” says Cardinali.

For renewable materials, for example, the company has partnerships with the Brazilian Bioethanol Science and Technology Laboratory (CTBE) and with the universities of Queensland (Australia) and Ohio (USA). Cardinali’s responsibilities include negotiating with potential partners regarding the division of intellectual property during exploitation of specific technologies. “My workday is very dynamic, with visits to universities and research institutes, as well as efforts to create a collaboration network by attending events and symposiums.”

Double diploma
Henrique Formaggi Noguchi, 25, currently a development and applications engineer in Dow’s elastomers group, was also admitted as a trainee in 2012. After getting his undergraduate degree in materials engineering at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP), Noguchi took part in a university exchange program with École Centrale Paris, in order to obtain a double diploma. “Through the exchange program, I attended four years of college here and two in France,” he says. Noguchi was selected by Dow for an R&D trainee position, and initially worked in the renewable materials research group. “For eight months, I researched both the agricultural and chemical aspects of sugarcane straw, which has a high cellulose content but is mostly left lying in the field because of the increasingly strict rules against raw sugarcane burning,” he says. The results of Noguchi’s research have been used in other projects at Dow, such as the low density polyethylene joint project with Mitsui.

Testing for resistance to fungi and algae

Léo RamosTesting for resistance to fungi and algaeLéo Ramos

After his initial experience period, Noguchi took a position as a development and applications engineer in Dow’s elastomers group and became responsible for the client portfolio of some applications in Latin America.  In that role, he provides technical assistance to clients, and also follows the development of applications for new products developed in the company’s main research and development centers in the United States and Europe. “Applications development involves not only product formulas and processing, but we also need to consider a client’s positioning in the market,” says Noguchi. “I work with the commercial and marketing teams because no invention by itself has an inherent market value.”

Fernanda Bortolane Bueno, 25 has been working at Dow for less than 10 months and is still a trainee in the R&D department. She is also working in the elastomers group, offering technical support to clients. “We assess whether we can adapt our products to the client’s needs, or whether we might need to create new processes or technologies,” says Bueno, who has an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Campinas (Unicamp). She talks on a weekly basis with her group leader in the United States, who tracks her professional progress. In Brazil, Bueno is coached by a colleague who was also a trainee, five years ago.

Dow’s main research partners in Brazil are the Polytechnic School at USP and the Materials Engineering Department at UFSCar. “Our relationship is one of almost permanent collaboration,” says Biggs. This close interaction also enables contact with students who are later hired by Dow’s R&D department, such as Iris Raquel Maia Tébéka, 27, a chemist with an undergraduate degree from the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE). She moved to São Paulo in 2007 to pursue a PhD in organic synthesis at USP. Tébéka first came into contact with Dow’s recruiting program during a visit to the university’s Chemistry Institute by researcher Rui Cruz, then a member of the company’s renewable raw materials group. “There was no recruitment program underway back then, but we kept in touch, which resulted in an interview before I left for my post-doctorate at Stockholm University in Sweden,” says Tébéka.

Alternative routes
Upon returning to Brazil in February 2013 after three years in Stockholm, Tébéka immediately started working as a renewable raw materials R&D researcher. “I finished the full course of academic training, but I’ve always been certain that I wanted to work in industry, in an area where academic knowledge is indispensable,” she says. Her daily activities include researching the development of new processes and innovations that might replace petrochemical processes with renewable alternatives. It is not traditional laboratory research. “We treat, analyze, and apply all types of experimental data obtained in our collaborations with foreign laboratories,” says Tébéka. “Everything we analyze, even the experimental data and bibliographical research, has to be examined from the standpoint of a financial analysis of the market and internal data from the company, such as production costs, market data, and logistics.”

Dilution of biosynthetic products

Léo RamosDilution of biosynthetic productsLéo Ramos

Dow is also heading up a sustainable cattle-raising project in the city of Paragominas, state of Pará, to increase herd productivity in a sustainable manner, through partnerships. The project’s first pilot test was started in 2010 at six cattle farms in the region, and involved simple interventions such as pasture fertilization, use of more productive forage species, and control measures against invasive plants. “One year after the project started, the farms were already considered examples of sustainable management, and their productivity had quadrupled,” says Biggs. Production jumped from 0.8 to 3.66 arrobas per hectare (1 arroba is about 33 pounds).

The company encourages its employees to participate in the innovation process through channels like Idea Central, a web portal that where anyone can use to make suggestions, and Innovation@Dow Challenge, which receives proposed solutions to real-life challenges. The company sponsors the annual Innovation Award, which rewards the most innovative projects submitted by Latin American researchers. In 2012, for example, the winner proposed the development of a coating to waterproof ceiling slabs and roofs. It was introduced on the market under the trade name Telhado Branco (“white roof”), to help alleviate high temperatures in urban environments. “Studies have shown that this solution brings a considerable gain in energy efficiency, with reductions of up to 5ºC in indoor temperatures and up to 18ºC on the outer surface of a roof,” says Biggs.