The Future of the Chemical Industry

The following text is a composite of excerpts from the May 21 Commencement Address by Dr. James A. Trainham, Director of Engineering Research and Development at DuPont.


It is a particular honor to be standing here, at the University of California - Berkeley, addressing you, the graduates of one of the best, if not the best, colleges of chemistry in the world.

 Never before have people, technology, capital, information, and products moved more freely across international boundaries, minimizing, and sometimes even equalizing, past disparities. The chemical industry is in the process of a major corporate transformation as it responds to this new environment. We have worked to meet this global challenge and become more cost-competitive. Unfortunately, staying competitive only lets us maintain our position. We don't grow. We don't create new jobs. We don't prosper.

 The mid-century growth of the chemical industry was essentially driven by one major chemistry breakthrough--synthetic polymers, a truly new class of materials--and the developed technologies that created a multi-billion dollar global industry.

 Polymers have provided outstanding value to the marketplace, and those companies that best captured that value grew at dramatic rates. This brings me to my fundamental premise about growth. The companies that create value in the marketplace prosper and grow. They create jobs and opportunities for their employees. They provide products and services that help people live better and more comfortably. They make a contribution to society. Those companies that fail to create value, wither and die.

 If synthetic polymer chemistry was the engine for driving chemical industry growth in the middle of the twentieth century, then what will be that engine as we move into the twenty-first? I believe at least one of those will be biotechnology--the understanding and harnessing of biochemistry, molecular biology, and biochemical engineering. Even the simplest living cell is a remarkably complex chemical factory. From cheap, readily available raw materials, living cells can manufacture a host of complex, high-value chemicals using little energy and producing little unwanted by-products.

 Not only will we find new therapies for some of the diseases that have plagued humanity since prehistoric times, we will also learn to harness the power of biology to produce chemicals of unprecedented value.

 I also believe that, although electrochemistry has been with us for over a century, we are now just beginning to appreciate the potential it has to produce many of the chemicals we use at lower cost, at higher yield, and with less waste. Electrochemistry integrated with material science will change the way we power our electronic devices and our vehicles as we develop more efficient, high energy-density batteries and fuel cells.

I am always amazed at the advances catalyst chemists pull out of their bag of tricks. Developing high-yield, low-cost routes to our important polymers and intermediates can revitalize our businesses and provide substantial and sustainable competitive advantage.

The power of the computer has revolutionized the way we work, and, I believe, will yet again redefine the way we discover, develop, design, build, operate, and renew our businesses...Both the modeling and simulation tools and the computers on which they run are becoming ever more capable, and that capability will allow us to explore chemistry on the computer before we go into the lab, synthesize and then run experiments with unprecedented efficiency, model the kinetics and dynamics of our most important reactions, reduce the cost of designing and building our manufacturing plants, and provide the basis for the kind of advanced process control that will allow us to run these plants on-aim, all the time.

The last decade has witnessed a virtual explosion of new on-line composition and property measurement options, and I see this becoming even more important as we build first principles' process models.

By coupling these models to real-time compositional and property measurements, we will achieve a level of process and quality control we can only dream of today.

 Much of our process knowledge is experiential or empirical. We make good products and while we are at it, a little money. But, and this is a big but, we do not really understand many of these processes on a first principles' basis.

 Consider, if you will, the impact of approaching theoretical chemical yield. The waste you don't produce doesn't consume raw materials. It doesn't take energy to convert, separate, or refine. It doesn't require analysis or quality control. It doesn't need to be packaged, stored, or shipped. It doesn't need to be treated, rendered safe or disposed of. It doesn't pollute the land, air, or water. It doesn't need capital to do all the above, and it doesn't consume your scientific and engineering energies.

Everyone wins. Jobs are secured. Costs for the consumer are reduced. Product quality improves. With all that at stake, we can accept nothing less.

 We need to develop profound insight--fundamental process understanding, if you will--about the chemistries and the processes we use to manufacture today's products and those of tomorrow. People and governments worldwide are demanding we produce products that create precious little waste during their manufacture and can be recycled so they produce little waste when we are finished using them. Some of our products make this transition well; others will do so with some difficulty; while for others, replacement with new products is the only alternative.

Conventional fossil fuels may fall into this last category. Even if new, more efficient ways of releasing their energy are found, their combustion will still produce carbon dioxide, worsening what some believe is already a serious environmental problem. For all of these problems, new science translated into new technology is needed, and I believe it is your class, and those who follow shortly, who will develop new solutions and create new opportunities for growth and prosperity.

 Today, the chemical industry is facing some significant costs for waste treatment and remediation because we had inadequate understanding of "yesterday's" challenges. Clearly, we cannot, must not, repeat this or we will become non-competitive as tomorrow's challenges become today's.

I believe that we must fully consider the overall life-cycle of the products we make today and those we will manufacture tomorrowÑhow we make them, how we use them, and how we reuse or recycle them.

This will take new, innovative products and processes--products and processes that will only emerge from a technology community aware of their environmental responsibility. I am sure you have heard that the total sum of all human knowledge is doubling every ten years and the rate is increasing.

This means we will all become more specialized as we try to learn ever more about increasingly narrow fields of specialization. I believe the breakthroughs will come at the intersection of these specialized fields of science and technology. Ladies and gentlemen of the University of California, Berkeley graduating class of 1995, the challenge lies before you. In your hands rests the future of the chemical industry, and, to a great extent the future of humanity.

I believe the future is in outstanding hands. I wish you all happiness and success.


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