The chemicals industry is what’s known as a hard-to-abate sector — here’s three companies changing that perception.

The chemicals industry has long had a dirty image, and for good reason. The sector, which produces everything from cleaning detergents to pharmaceuticals to fertilisers, is the largest industrial consumer of oil and gas and has the third-largest carbon footprint behind steel and cement. 

What do chemicals, steel and cement all have in common? They constitute hard-to-abate sectors, meaning they’re carbon-intensive industries with few clear, economically viable low-emission alternatives. Innovation in these industries must be the central focus of scientific and technological development in the coming decades.

Thankfully, people have been innovating. So, to keep you in the loop, The Climate has put together a shortlist of companies that are doing what most in the industry thought impossible just a few years ago. 

1. Solugen

Traditional chemical plants use petrochemical feedstocks to produce a product, usually with lots of unwanted byproducts and waste that need to be separated off after the main reaction has taken place. 

The process is energy-intensive and the waste is often pretty nasty, so the plant needs to be far away from people. Moreover, one plant will be specifically designed to produce one product, plus maybe a few valuable byproducts. 

Solugen, a company based in Houston, U.S., circumvents traditional methods and the environmental woes attached to them using a little something called biology.  

The company uses artificial intelligence (AI) to specially design enzymes — biological catalysts that facilitate the chemical reaction of one molecule to another but remain unchanged themselves — that turn corn sugar into just about any product they want. 

For each tonne of corn sugar feedstock, the plant produces almost exactly one tonne of product — no waste. Since corn absorbs carbon from the atmosphere to grow and the whole plant runs on renewable energy, Solugen’s process is carbon negative. 

Right now, Solugen’s products have applications as additives in concrete, homecare and cleaning detergents, micronutrient delivery systems for agriculture, water treatment chemicals and corrosion inhibitors. The same plant makes all of these products, using the same equipment and the same process.

Today, Solugen has raised almost $650 million after Series D funding, has a commercial-scale plant — the Bioforge — operating in Houston, almost 200 members of staff and last year was valued at more than $2 billion.

An aerial shot of a chemicals plant. Pipes twist and turn around each other. The plant is relatively small - cars parked next to it don't look particularly small.
Solugen’s Bioforge plant makes chemical from plants via a carbon negative process (Solugen)

2. Dude Chem

The pharmaceutical industry is a particularly emission-intensive part of the healthcare machine. A 2019 study carried out by researchers at McMaster University found pharmaceutical companies generate 48.55 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per $1 million of revenue — 55 percent higher than the emissions intensity of the much more closely scrutinised automotive industry. 

Interlinked with the emissions issue is the raw material challenge pharmaceutical companies face. 

Put simply, developing and manufacturing drugs requires a vast amount of raw material input, produces an equally vast amount of waste, and the end result is a small amount of the desired product, known as the active pharmaceutical ingredient, or API.

In the face of these challenges, pharmaceutical manufacturing and green chemistry experts Dude Chem entered the fray back in 2019, with the goal of transforming the current pharma-chemical industry into an environmentally benign sector.

Dude Chem’s applies the 12 principles of green chemistry, originally developed in the 1990s, to pharmaceutical processes using high-tech computer modelling.  They develop, optimise and scale up new chemical processes and synthesis routes in-house, which pharma companies and contractors can then implement. 

The results are impressive: one process under development was reporting a 71% reduction in waste before process optimisation had even finished. 

The company raised €2.7 million in seed funding in 2022 (about $3 million) and already boasts some impressive clients on its books, including one of Germany’s largest manufacturers of generic drugs that are no longer under patent protection.

3. Chemify

By now, you may have noticed a theme. The green chemical revolution is in lockstep with the digital revolution going on right now. Few companies exemplify this better than Chemify.

Founded in 2019, the University of Glasgow spinout is on a mission to create “a digital chemical future where (…) access to important molecules, drugs and new materials, currently unimaginable, [is] instantly accessible”.

A major bottleneck in the development of green chemical processes is that research and development (R&D) is costly and time-consuming . Finding sustainable alternatives for the molecules and reactions the chemical industry currently uses is really, really hard. 

To speed things up, Chemify has merged the worlds of chemistry and computation, which the team, hopefully ironically, calls “chemputation”. 

Using AI, the company has created a universal programming language for chemistry that allows them to access and create the trillions of possible combinations of the natural world. 

Currently, the firm is working closely with partners in drug discovery, advanced materials, industrial chemicals and other sectors. When it unleashes its platform on the world, the speed of innovation in some of the hardest-to-abate processes will increase dramatically. 

It’s no wonder investors are paying attention, then. The company secured $43 million in Series A funding in August this year and has just announced a partnership with Dewpoint Therapeutics to develop a suite of digitally discovered and automatically synthesised novel drug molecules on Chemify’s programmable chemistry platform.