Dr. Berit Stange views the material world from a special viewpoint: “Some people see waste. I see raw material

“As a chemist, I see the material world from a special viewpoint,” says Dr. Berit Stange, circular economy polyurethane project manager. She blogs about her love story with chemistry and reveals how she, as a chemist, came to work on answers for the large future-oriented questions of humankind.

“My relationship with chemistry started rather unassertive. In the beginning, I was not enthused about my course of studies. Inorganic crystalline structures and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle are rather abstract special areas of the broad science of chemistry. My view changed abruptly when I started to study polymers, which are long molecule chains. This is where it got extremely exciting, because polymer chemistry is a kind of building block of chemistry. It is the art of providing materials with new characteristics and new functionalities by using selective catalysts, which are already available to a large extent and new technologies from a repertoire of building blocks - the monomers. You start by defining the physical characteristics of the final product, the physical characteristics of the plastic are then derived from the definition and finally, you review the variety of building blocks, supplement them if necessary and combine these as a new creation - the polymerisation. This is where it is decided whether the plan was successful and if a material – foam in the case of urethanes - is soft or hard, breathable or insulated. Or if it uses CO2 as a building block for example, in the case of the large Covestro-Innovation Cardyon®, and will therefore need fewer fossil fuels for the synthesis.

On my first job, I experienced this complexity very strongly: As the Bayer laboratory manager of the Krefeld-Uerdingen location, I had to face a new exciting subject: How do I protect the user of products made from state-of-the-art plastics against fire dangers? These dangers are caused if metals are replaced by high performance, oil-based materials. How can I protect polymers against fire without losing their high performance characteristics? Together with a global team of experts, I was able to develop new formulae to guarantee that our customers’ products are always in accordance with the latest fire protection standards.

From the laboratory to technical marketing

This user-oriented research was very exciting, however, I wanted more. I was very interested to better understand the customers and their needs, in order to sharpen the strategic view of the application development. Therefore, after five years in research I directed my attention to a new job field, namely the market introduction of new products. This provided the opportunity for me to contribute to industrial research and to drive products forward in a completely different way. The newly developed materials obviously offer the customer new functions. The benefits of these products are often complex, however, and require adaptation of the highly developed processes of the industries that process these products. This is where technical marketing comes in: as the translator between the technical requirements of the customers and the new products provided by research. I initially took on this role for our customers in the electrical and electronics area, i.e. the large manufacturers of light fittings, fuse boxes and plug systems, and later for application in medical systems – with completely new requirements for the cleanliness and reliability of products.

A new challenge: Cardyon®

It all began with the question: "Would you like to take on the project management for Cardyon®?" After a few hours of reviewing the material it became clear to me: The introduction of Cardyon® is not a “normal" project, it is not an improvement of an existing material – it is something revolutionary, new and it can open a new chapter in the area of industrial polymers. I was determined to accept this job. I did have another attractive job offer at the same time, but supporting a completely new product from the beginning, bringing it on its way and seeing it grow, that is what I wanted to do! And that is why I applied for the position as Venture Manager for Cardyon®.

What does Cardyon® have that other products don't?

Carbon, required for the production of polyols, is normally provided by crude oil. For Cardyon®, we replaced the crude oil based building blocks in parts by CO2 – this means that we convert an exhaust gas, which damages the climate, into a valuable raw material! Therefore, Cardyon® conserves the limited fossil fuels of the world and additionally provides a new raw material for the industry. This is very exciting. Cardyon® delivered its first contribution to the circular economy in which the exhaust gas CO2 is returned into the value added chain. To continue this transformation of the circular economy, I am currently actively involved in an additional project, which I manage: It is the direct usage of polyurethane-based products after their "first" life as mattress and the recirculation of the flow of waste into the circular flow.

This is how we can move things

The circular economy project, which I have managed since October 2018 after my activities for Cardyon®, is a project for the century and a chance for a chemist to engage oneself for the future of our planet. The question of how we can manage to combine the benefits of state-of-the-art, plastic-based component and products with the sustainability requirements of humankind and the earth on which we live, is decisive. We analyse which of the components we can recycle and can return them to the value-added chain. This means: Where some people see waste, we see possible raw materials. If you look at the plastic bags in the ocean as carbons, then this is not only an environmental problem but it also a valuable raw material lost. It is our challenge to better and more effectively utilise the carbons, which we mainly use for the production of materials. Therefore, we work with new technologies to further broaden our raw material basis. We can already use CO2 as a raw material and we are working to widen the platform technology. Covestro wants to use the important carbon element intelligently and consequently be able to use CO2 in as many plastic types as possible. In addition, together with partners in the industry, we are working to develop recycling technologies and are engaged in the question of what happens at the end of the life of a mattress and how we can return the raw materials to the circulation flow. And this is where the circle closes for my occupational career: I started with the passion to BUILD polymers. And now, to service sustainability, it is important to convert them back into their components and to return them into the value-added chain. This is where the future of Covestro is, and also my future.