The success of chemicals is crucial, in many ways, for the economic future of Europe. It is undoubtedly one – and perhaps the only one – of the innovative sectors in Europe that is ahead in the world.
Chemistry is at the forefront of change. New uses for chemicals are growing daily. The industrial revolution of chemicals is about to transform the products and processes of other industries that have remained unchanged since the last century. For example, high-strength steel cables are being forced to give way to very high molecular weight polyethylene fibers, which are much lighter and do not corrode. Another example of innovation is the manufacture of ceramic combustion engines with carbon fiber-reinforced pistons of this same element.
In the field of electronics, chemical technology is playing an increasingly important role. A number of leading European companies are becoming major producers of gallium arsenide, the substance that will replace silicon in the chips of tomorrow, and some are in the forefront in the production of advanced fiber optics and the use of acrylic materials. as central cores of optical cables.
Chemical researchers are also on the frontiers of scientific discovery. Of course, this happens in the case of biotechnology, but it also happens in areas such as physics. Indeed, in this field, scientists are in the race to achieve practical superconductivity at high temperatures, and are working on new ceramic materials that have been designed to use little or no energy and produce significant magnetic effects.
Curiously a few years ago, people said that we had reached the end of the innovative path, and that there would be no more plastics or new fibers. However, sustained research paid off. New polymers appeared with which advanced materials were produced that challenge traditional materials such as steel and aluminum. Almost overnight, the chemical industry has become the heart of a true and profound industrial revolution, from a chimney industry to a high-tech industry.
Luciano de Samosata, the Baron of Münchhausen and Jules Verne took us with their imagination to the Moon, but the imagination of chemists has been necessary for the illusion to become reality (fuels, fibers and special materials, ceramic coatings, computers , fiber optics, transparent material, prepared foods)
The secret to saving fuel is in the lightness of weight, achieved through chemical products, compounds that can save up to 30% of the weight of the structure of an airplane. Little by little, the era of the plastic plane is approaching. Carbon fiber reinforced synthetic resins are used in the European Airbus A320, and in the new advanced passenger aircraft – Beechcraft “Starship” – these materials are used in the construction of the body and wings. And it is not only steel that is being replaced, but even recently developed materials such as lithium and aluminum alloys.
Since the first jet planes appeared, the liters of fuel consumed per seat per 100 km have been cut in half. A decrease of one kg in the weight of an airplane means an average saving of 120 liters of fuel per year.
With regard to safety, chemicals are capable of instantly putting out a possible engine fire and all reactors have automatic extinguishing systems based on them.
One in every twelve jobs in Europe is related to the automobile, which is a sign of the great economic and social importance of a machine that would not be possible without the help of sophisticated chemical products. Fuels have been able to be used for many years with greater efficiency, and therefore with greater economy, mixed with chemical derivatives of lead, today replaced by other chemical products and, if oil were lacking, chemistry could provide, as in Brazil , methanol of plant origin.
The use of plastics, lighter than metals, translates into more kilometers per liter of fuel. Today, around 8 million tons of plastics travel on European roads, replacing the corresponding weight of metals, mainly iron, with a density 7 times greater.
Plastics are the best way to aerodynamically shape vehicles to reduce their coefficient of penetration and vehicles can be kept out of the garage due to the paint that beautifies and protects them. Since the first cars appeared, the life of tires has been lengthened 400 times, adding safety and comfort to travel. Other products such as antifreeze prevent the problems of winter, lubricants – which are true high-tech products, resistant to heat, cold and the tremendous shaking they are subjected to – reduce the wear of moving parts, and each fluid in your car is a chemical specially designed for a purpose.
Passive car safety is also highly dependent on chemicals, as is the case with crash windows, strong fibers in seat belts, and instant inflation systems for airbags.
But we are not there yet and the car of the future is already beginning to be seen. The development of micro-precision plastic molding is taking engineering to a new dimension. Advanced motors are being developed everywhere that use ceramic and do not require cooling. Neither are batteries made of very thin films that can be bent to mount them almost anywhere. In this way, scientists in the chemical industry are contributing to a revolutionary transformation of the traditional forms and conceptions and the nature of automobiles. Suffice it to think of the future of the electric or hydrogen-powered automobile, and the use of solar panels.
Computer science is based on silicon chips and gallium arsenide chips, the circuits of which are built using photochemical processes. Magnetic media and CD-ROMs are made of plastics, and the displays are internally coated with light-sensitive products. Also the cases, keyboards, wiring and that mouse that you cuddle and that makes you navigate through cyberspace, are made of polymers.
In construction an incalculable number of chemicals are used for the most varied purposes. Paint, roof coverings, pipes and now also doors and windows are made of plastic materials, such as PVC, saving huge amounts of wood and helping to avoid deforestation.
The “home heat” is maintained thanks to foams of insulating materials and the serious corrosion problems that affect reinforced concrete have led to the introduction of aerospace materials in construction. Some years ago, instead of steel, fiberglass with polyester resins began to be used to reinforce concrete in the construction of road bridges, using other chemical additives to improve their properties, among which is the increase of its watertightness.
Without explosive materials, it would be inconceivable to carry out large works, such as dams, tunnels or railway lines. Neither would it be possible to work in the mines and obtain inert materials for the manufacture of bricks and cement, basic for the construction of houses.
The colorants and ceramic glazes give protection and color to ceramic pieces used in construction and sanitary ware. Binders allow the manufacture of new products with residual materials, and thermal and acoustic adhesives and insulators find application everywhere.
Whether the task is to restore, modernize or construct new buildings, the construction industry is continually faced with the problem of preserving and creating environments that are increasingly welcoming and better adapted to human needs. Without the contribution of chemistry this task could not be tackled.