The Franco- Belgian group creates a new activity for energy production in the United States and continues to grow in green chemistry.

Solvay launches into torrefied biomass production on an industrial scale in the United States. It is a "new activity whose aim is to provide a alternative source of renewable energy,” says a Solvay in a statement, published Tuesday, March 11.

Solvay has taken control of the American company New Biomass Energy (NBE) and will inject $ 22 million (15.85 million euros) to carry out the projects. "We identified this start-up six years ago and we followed closely its development. In the area that interests us, it was the only one to have passed the stage of demonstration," says one at Solvay.

The Belgian group is now part of the exclusive club of world leading chemical companies since its merger with the French Rhodia, in spring 2011. Founded in 1863 by brothers Ernest and Alfred Solvay, inventor of a new method of making soda, the company made last year a turnover of € 9.9 billion, a net profit 270 million.

Led by the former head of Rhodia Clamadieu, Solvay operates in 55 countries and has 29,000 employees. "Solvay wants to strengthen the development of products and technologies for the energy transition," says Philippe Rosier, President of Solvay Energy Services.
The torrefied biomass is obtained through a roasting process that changes the chemical properties of wood waste and biomass. It will be produced in Quitman Mississippi State in a factory not built by NBE. In particular, it will use sawmill residues, very abundant in this region rich in forests.

Biomass is an alternative to coal, readily available, since it can be used in thermal power plants without technical modifications. The energy efficiency of the torrefied biomass is 35 % higher than traditional wood pellets, sometimes used to replace coal.

The U.S. plant will soon rise in capacity. By the end of the year, the production of torrefied biomass is expected to increase from 80 000 tonnes to 250 000 tons, which could provide the annual electricity consumption of a city of 150,000 inhabitants. Solvay will operate and maintain the plant, but also supply the raw materials and marketing of the torrefied biomass. However, the market remains very small in the United States, where cheap shale gas hunts all energies. Most of the production is sold to utilities companies in Europe and Asia.

Like all great chemical companies, Solvay seeks ways to develop products with great added value in green chemistry (or vegetable), which already represents 11% of its supplies. According to its 2012-2016 strategic plan, innovation should contribute to a third of the growth in gross operating income. On European markets, Solvay are also looking to quit some traditional activities that become less and less profitable. Last year, Solvay has begun its withdrawal from the manufacture of PVC by creating a joint venture with its Swiss rival Ineos.

At the same time, and like its European competitors, Solvay expanded its presence in the United States, that became a new Eldorado for petrochemicals, thanks to shale gas, which is both a raw material for the industry (with ethane which is used to make ethylene), and a power source. In October 2013, Solvay has spent nearly a billion euros in the acquisition of the American Chemlogics specializing in chemicals that allow the extraction of unconventional hydrocarbons.