The chemical industry is Switzerland’s largest manufacturing sector, generating around 5% of the country’s gross domestic product, 45% of exports, and almost half a million jobs globally. It is also the largest consumer of oil and gas and is the second largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases. This is because 95% of the chemical feedstocks for the current portfolio of 300’000 products are fossil-derived. Besides, the fine chemical and pharmaceutical sectors dominant in Switzerland produce substantial amounts of other hazardous waste that need to be appropriately managed.
The scientific mission of NCCR Catalysis is to develop technologies permitting the defossilization of the chemical industry and zero-waste chemicals production. We approach this by designing catalytic processes for the efficient transformation of renewable feedstocks (e.g., carbon dioxide, water, nitrogen, and biomass) to energy carriers and building blocks, and their subsequent transformation to customized products. This is not an easy task, and none of the potential routes are commercially viable today. We will tackle this by implementing modern cross-disciplinary approaches exploiting advances in experimental and digital tools and building a framework for better decision-making by introducing general sustainability metrics, which are currently lacking. Our aims address multiple UN sustainable development goals from climate action to clean energy and from sustainable industrialization to quality education.
The long-term commitment brought by large-scale initiatives like National Centres for Competence in Research is essential to bring together the necessary expertise for confronting catalytic process design challenges of this magnitude. Furthermore, the autonomy provided by having an independent project office is a unique feature for team building in the broad network of NCCR Catalysis, permitting unbiased decision-making and fair representation. Our current family includes 29 core members and around 140 researchers from both federal schools, 3 cantonal universities, 2 universities of applied science, and 1 private institution.
Fostering holistic mindsets in research requires disciplinary diversity. NCCR Catalysis integrates nearly all branches of chemistry (organic, inorganic, physical, bio, and theoretical), chemical and process engineering, materials science, and computer science. We actively encourage open discussion and interdisciplinary collaborative projects, and provide cross-disciplinary training for young researchers.
NCCR Catalysis has the critical mass and engages all stakeholders to explain the needs, communicate the benefits, and implement changes in all structural areas successfully. We will promote modern approaches and the adoption of newly emerging tools, for example, in data science, and strengthen the dialogue between academia, industry, and society through transparent single-meaning communication.
By understanding industrial needs, forming strategic partnerships, supporting spin-off creation, and engaging policymakers, NCCR Catalysis will promote the commercialization of sustainable technologies, with various demonstrators planned. A key target is to equip current and future generations of catalysis scientists with the tools to confront existing and unforeseen challenges facing society. We will also guide the international community in constructing new chemical value chains by recommending sustainability metrics to evaluate their viability. Besides, we will lead the shift towards standardized and digital practices, especially in experimental research, facilitating the sharing and learning from data, a central pillar for the broad adoption of digital tools. Ultimately, our activities will enable Switzerland to preserve its position at the forefront of chemical education, research, and innovation.
Javier Pérez-Ramírez and Jérôme Waser