A family of solvents made from renewable sources: Augeo, residual glycerin from the biodiesel manufacturing process; and Emana, a line of textile fibers used in apparel that can improve blood microcirculation and slow muscle fatigue are two key innovations of Rhodia’s laboratories in Brazil. Rhodia began as a French company, acquired in 2011 by Belgian chemical group Solvay, and it has been operating in Brazil for nearly a century. In Paulínia, a city in São Paulo State 120 km from the capital, Rhodia maintains a research complex with 13 laboratories where 93 professionals are directly involved in research and development. The Paulínia Research and Innovation Center is part of a global network of 21 units of the Solvay Group dedicated to the research and development (R&D) of new products and chemical processes.
“We are pioneers in the use of raw materials from renewable sources for producing chemicals. Back in the 1940s, we introduced sugarcane ethanol into our production chain,” says chemical engineer Gabriel Gorescu, director of Rhodia R&D for Latin America. More recently, in 2015, Rhodia opened the Industrial Biotechnology Laboratory (IBL) in Paulínia to expand the development of innovations in sustainable chemistry and support business plans in other branches of the company globally. “The IBL focuses on researching new processes and molecules derived from biomass and turning them into innovative solutions for the markets we serve,” explains food engineer Daniel Dias, IBL manager.
|Paulínia, São Paulo
|Number of researchers
|Textile yarns and fibers, solvents, inputs for the plastic, food, paint and tire industries
Yarn and intelligent textile fibers are standouts in the multinational portfolio, exemplified by the 2009 development of Emana yarn, which absorbs body heat and returns it as infrared radiation (IR). “Bioactive mineral crystals, which can absorb and redirect body heat, are embedded into polymer yarn molecules. Generally, our body functions at temperatures between 35 and 36 degrees Celsius. It emits radiation in a specific electromagnetic wave length as heat,” explains chemist Alessandro Rizzato, manager of external relations and fundraising for the firm. “Emana absorbs some of these waves and returns a portion of the radiation to the body in infrared spectrum waves. They penetrate more deeply into the body, stimulating local microcirculation and reducing fatigue and muscle pain.”
Rhodia performed the study that characterized Emana’s properties together with KosmoScience, headquartered in Valinhos, São Paulo State, a spinoff founded in 2003 at the Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Electrochemistry and Ceramics of São Paulo State University (Unesp), Araraquara campus, which specializes in clinical research on pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. They showed that clothing made with this fiber increases skin elasticity and reduces signs of cellulite after continuous use for 30 days. In the sports apparel line, Emana helps athletes reduce muscle fatigue and they recover more quickly. “This is definitely an innovative technology,” says Antonio Carlos Moraes, professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) School of Physical Education, which also coordinated an Emana evaluation study, commissioned by Rhodia.
“The use of infrared sources for therapeutic and cosmetic applications and as an ergogenic resource [to enhance athletes’ performance] is growing every year,” Moraes explains. “Infrared sources normally depend on electricity, which reduces this resource’s mobility and portability and causes other complications, such as the need to have a professional develop the application, not to mention the cost of the equipment.”
The development of Augeo oxygenated solvents is another line of the company’s sustainable products. Augeo was the result of a three-year research process begun in 2009 to compete with conventional solvents from petrochemical sources such as glycol ethers. The basic raw material for Augeo is glycerin, a byproduct of biodiesel production from vegetable oils. “Augeo is used in cleaning products for kitchens and bathrooms. In addition to the small amount of carbon [CO2 emissions in the production process], the solvent is virtually odor-free compared to other products. In most cases solvents have a strong smell, and companies that make cleaning products have to use more fragrances to disguise the unpleasant odor. With Augeo, the amount of fragrance can be decreased in the formula for the finished product,” explains Sergio Martins, manager of development and application in the solvents unit. The product is good at removing stains, it is not toxic to the nose or mouth, and it is biodegradable. To comply with the laws of many countries and thanks to the ample supply of Brazilian glycerin (a biodiesel byproduct), Rhodia is exporting the new solvent to the United States, Latin America, Europe and Asia.
“From the industrial and application standpoint,” Augeo is a success. It was an important technological innovation for the company,” says chemist Ronaldo Pilli, a professor at Unicamp Chemistry Institute. In the early 2000s, Pilli was invited to join Rhodia’s scientific committee, tasked, among other things, with discussing innovation processes. “The company made a bold move when it established an internal post-doctoral program in the field of chemistry to boost the critical mass of its employees.”
Myriad chemical specialties
In addition to the textile fiber and solvent lines, in Brazil, Rhodia produces large quantities of chemical inputs, including: engineering plastics used to manufacture car parts; specialty chemicals (surfactants and additives) used in shampoos, hair conditioners, liquid soap and body creams; cellulose acetate for cigarette filters; products used in formulating agrochemicals, paint, emulsions and coatings; additives for the food industry; and high-performance silica to manufacture green tires that help save fuel and reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Rhodia began operating in Brazil just after the end of World War I in 1919 to produce anesthetic ether, a chloride-based spray known popularly as lança-perfume that generates euphoria and excitement in users. Launched at the end of the 19th century, lança-perfume found its way to Brazil via importers and was a big hit at Carnaval. Ground was broken for the factory the next year, and in 1922 Brazilian revelers began to use domestic anesthetic ether spray at Carnaval balls. Brazil outlawed the product in the 1960s. In the late 1920s, Rhodia began producing its first pharmaceuticals in Brazil and founded the first company in the textile industry, Companhia Brasileira de Sedas Rhodiaseta, to produce cellulose acetate yarn. Rhodia began making artificial fibers at a time when the market was dominated by natural fibers, mainly cotton.
Brands and mergers
In the decades that followed, Rhodia diversified its portfolio and began working in other market segments, becoming one of Brazil’s largest chemical companies. Interestingly, the company is called Rhodia only in Brazil and Germany, while in the rest of the world it is called Rhône-Poulenc, the name of the group in France. In 1998, the parent company decided to separate its chemistry operations from what it called the life sciences (pharmaceuticals, agrochemistry, veterinary and animal nutrition). As a result, the chemistry side of the business kept the name Rhodia throughout the world and the name Aventis was adopted for the life sciences side. The company used this international configuration until 2011, when it merged with the Solvay Group, which was already operating in Brazil and producing chlorine and PVC. Solvay began operating in Brazil in 1941 via Indústrias Químicas Eletro Cloro, with headquarters in Santo André, São Paulo State. “Even after the acquisition, Solvay decided to keep the Rhodia brand in Brazil as a show of its strength there. It was the only country in the world that kept the Rhodia name,” Gorescu says.
The Solvay Group operates 145 factories in 53 countries and employs 30,900 people. Total sales in 2015 reached €12.4 billion, and of that amount, €900 million (7.3% of the total) came from sales from the operation in Brazil, where the company has nine plants: seven are in São Paulo State (Santo André, São Bernardo do Campo, Paulínia, Brotas, Itatiba, Taboão da Serra and Osasco), one is in Curitiba, Paraná, and the other is in Simões Filho, Bahia. Global investment in R&D in 2015 was €277 million, the equivalent of 2.2% of sales. (Rhodia does not disclose amounts invested in R&D by country.) Each year, about 250 patents are registered globally for new products and processes that are developed in the multinational company’s research and innovation centers.