Story | 06/21/2023 15:20:36 | 7 min Read time

Gerd Unkelbach: "I want to be part of the shift, replacing old approach with new technologies"

Daniela Walker

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For 18 years Gerd Unkelbach has worked on replacing fossil-based materials with renewable ones. During this time the domain of biochemicals has changed from nearly non-existent to a provider of business essentials. The change has been dramatic, but still way too slow to Unkelbach’s liking. What keeps him motivated in the field where patience is a virtue?

Gerd Unkelbach will be the first to admit that he is not a patient man.

“I want to see results immediately,” he chuckles.

It is an ironic statement coming from a person who has had to bide his time, waiting for the world to catch up to the idea that sustainable solutions – in his case, sustainable chemicals and polymers – are not just interesting, but critical to our collective future.

A pioneer of a new industry

More businesses are now integrating sustainability processes into their business from the start, with 67% using more sustainable materials according to Deloitte. But it hasn’t always been this way. In 2010, consulting firm McKinsey found that only 30% of executives said their companies actively sought out opportunities to invest in sustainability or embed it in their business practices.

When Unkelbach first began to work in renewables and sustainable chemical processes in 2005 –  while working at the Fraunhofer Society, an application-oriented research organization – sustainability was  even less of a mainstream business concern.

“People were asking about sustainable solutions, but they didn’t exist.”

Unkelbach was excited by the idea of being a pioneer of a new industry, where he now gets to explore creating chemicals and materials like functional fillers with woody biomass as the main raw material.
 

Gerd Unkelbach

 
“Fossil-based chemistry is more than 100 years old. I wanted to be part of the shift, replacing that old approach with new technologies – that was my intention from the beginning.”

Fossil-based chemistry is more than 100 years old. I wanted to be part of the shift, replacing that old approach with new technologies – that was my intention from the beginning.

Needs of society come first

Unkelbach’s career began as many do – with a good teacher. His chemistry teacher in secondary school brought to life the world of molecules, why and how things change and react as they are mixed.

“I want to know why it was that if you mix something, a different product occurs. At first it was hard for me to understand, but my teacher explained it nicely and it became fascinating to me.”

It was like learning a new language that helped Unkelbach make sense of the world around him.

Unkelbach’s teacher guided him towards an apprenticeship as a chemical lab assistant, which led to his enrolment at a university of applied research. His desire to work in applied science connects to his desire to make an immediate impact.

“In applied research, you want to implement something for the needs of society. It’s not about the science itself so much as it is about new technologies and products.”

In applied research, you want to implement something for the needs of society. It’s not about the science itself so much as it is about new technologies and products.”

Today, as head of UPM’s polymers and molecular bioproducts R&D department, Unkelbach gets to combine many of his interests. On a day-to-day basis, his role fulfills many functions. As the head of an R&D unit at UPM’s Northern European Research Center in Lappeenranta, Finland, anything to do with chemistry or new polymer materials comes across his desk. He manages a multinational team, who come together to not only problem-solve and troubleshoot but to also understand the potential for new developments or collaborations within the value chain that could result in more sustainable products in the end.

“We research around optimising manufacturing processes or the development of entirely new products,” explains Unkelbach.
 

Gerd Unkelbach

 
Essentially, if there are chemical or biotechnological processess involved, Unkelbach and his team are researching them. They look into new ways of producing biofuels, biochemicals or new plastics which would reduce the need for environmentally-damaging fossil feedstocks.

He also oversees the opening of a new research center in Leuna, Germany, next to UPM’s newest biorefinery site which produces wood-based biochemicals from German hardwood. Some of their products will be used in polyester production, as cooling agents and in de-icing fluids. Others will replace fossil-based carbon black within rubber, clothing and plastics.

Hope is not lost. Unkelbach believes that rather than fighting it, we need to slow climate change down as much as possible and reduce our environmental impact overall.

“It's impossible to fight climate change”

Unkelbach doesn’t think of himself as an eco-warrior battling against climate change. He is rather pragmatic about the issue.

“You cannot fight climate change,” he says. “This is impossible, because the effects of the past already have an influence.”

But hope is not lost. Unkelbach believes that rather than fighting it, we need to slow climate change down as much as possible and reduce our environmental impact overall.

We have to face this challenge that everybody wants to live in a nice environment, but needs food, clothes, materials, energy, and that demand is increasing.

“As the world’s population grows, we have to face this challenge that everybody wants to live in a nice environment, needs food, clothes, materials, energy, and that demand is increasing. We have to fulfill this with better technologies.”

For him the real goal is to create sustainable processes that do not affect the environment so that “we are in a stable equilibrium”.

Everyone has to benefit

While the rapid speed at which climate change is already impacting our planet can occasionally scare Unkelbach, the speed of innovation gives him hope. When he began working in green chemistry in the early 2000s, only a few people in academia were talking about biorefining or creating chemicals from sustainable processes. “There are new opportunities for the implementation or for the development of new technologies which nobody thought about 20 years ago.”

For him, that is the greatest challenge – finding the right solution at the right time and ensuring there is the talent, investment and scale to make sure it has true impact.

“The value chains in the chemical industry are really, really long, and everybody in it has to benefit. You have to work on a sustainable product with a sustainable technology, which makes economic sense. Otherwise, it will not be implemented, and then, your research goes in the waste bin.”

There are new opportunities for the implementation or for the development of new technologies which nobody thought about 20 years ago.

Creating sustainable solutions is like a puzzle with missing pieces. Unkelbach needs to understand the entire value chain, spot where sustainable solutions might fit in, where collaborations might occur and where new research and development is needed.

“Sustainable process should be used across the whole chain – otherwise you lose the benefits of having a green feedstock at the start”, he says.

But these developments can take time. Which brings us back to Unkelbach’s impatience.

“I’ve learned to deal with it”, he says.

That is also a central motivator for him. He gets to brainstorm ideas and problem-solve with his team to build that better future.

“Everyone is highly motivated – both my team and the businesses we work with. You have to fulfill some criteria like economics, or technology-readiness level, or the product should be better than the fossil-based one. But if this can be fulfilled... Then you can see that your R&D outcome can somehow change a whole company.”

 

Author

Daniela Walker

Daniela Walker

Text | Daniela Walker is a writer, editor and trend forecaster, whose work helps brands understand the major societal and cultural shifts that are impacting our collective futures. She has worked with companies such as Nike, Bacardi, Dell and the BBC and her writing has appeared in Wired magazine, Frame magazine and Monocle amongst others.
 
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