Always up to date: Solvay's flagship products

Right from its early days, the Group proved particularly skilful at updating its historical products and developing activities aligned with trends of the time. Always on time: this is one of the secrets of Solvay's longevity.

1863-2013: soda ash, first of all and always

Industry did not wait for Ernest Solvay in order to exploit the properties of soda ash, a substance which has always existed naturally, and in synthetic form since the late eighteenth century. Indeed, at the time of the industrial revolution, a country's soda ash consumption was often taken as the criterion of its level of development. In this context, imposing its flagship product was the young company's first priority.  The effort paid off: with intensive prospecting and the reputation provided by the universal exhibitions, glass and soap makers were convinced to adopt the Solvay soda ash, purer than its competitors. The Group has never left this number 1 spot, hard-won more than a century ago, at times at the cost of major adaptations: in the United States, for example, Solvay has invested in mining natural soda ash or trona.

Bicarbonate, caustic soda, chlorine: when derivatives meet their markets

In the first decades, exploiting derivatives (by-products) was of interest to Solvay only if this could increase soda production. A miracle product, bicarbonate (baking soda) naturally found its place in the company's business strategy.  Its multiple domestic uses made it, then as now, a source of recurring revenue. Another example: to secure its source of ammonia, Solvay developed in the 1880s a system of coke ovens including a system for recovering the ammonia produced during the combustion of coal. This led to the manufacture of nitrogenous fertilizers and hydrocarbon derivatives.

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But no question of investing if the application was not there ready and waiting! Thus, the company preferred initially, for reasons of economic rationality, to encourage soap makers to buy its soda ash rather than produce the caustic soda itself. It is the growth of this market, stimulated by the dye industry, which resolved Solvay finally to enter into this ancillary production, initially by ‘causticizing’ its soda ash with lime, and later through the electrolysis of salt, which also produces chlorine. In the inter-war years, Solvay resolutely took the path of chlorine chemistry that provided opportunities for its electrolytic production.

Plastic fantastic

ts-flagship2From the 1930s onwards, consumption of plastics exploded, growing by over 20% a year. Solvay wanted its piece of the cake! PVC, discovered in 1912 and produced commercially since 1927, was all the more attractive as its production consumed large quantities of chlorine. Its versatility was another advantage, giving Solvay access to a wide market. From 1949 onwards, the Group invested in this new business, which called for a different approach to service and marketing.

Once it had fully mastered the polymerization technology, Solvay started to widen its range and exploit its know-how.  Polyethylene and polypropylene opened up new perspectives in plastics.

In 1958, the company started the direct manufacturing of consumer products.  Its inventions include plastic bottles for mineral water, an enormous and lasting success. It also entered the construction and home decoration markets with corrugated sheeting, pipes, vinyl flooring and wall coverings, and added automotive parts to its range.

Hydrogen peroxide is also Solvay!

What was to be done with the hydrogen produced by the electrolytic plants? In 1950, an idea naturally sparked: hydrogen peroxide, a bleaching agent and disinfectant used in many industries. Solvay had received the license to a German process as wartime compensation and started its own research in 1951. In 1971, the group took world leadership in peroxides, a position it holds to this day. Hydrogen peroxide passed from specialty to mass product. In Europe and in emerging markets, Solvay consolidated its position by building very large production units.

Life sciences, a world apart

ts-flagship3In the late '70s, to reduce the cyclicality of its business, Solvay started to accelerate its development in life sciences, mainly through acquisitions. The Group took strong positions in animal health (poultry and livestock vaccines), crop protection, enzymes, and human health. The German subsidiary Kali Chemie opened the door. This highly inventive subsidiary even took Solvay into fish and shrimp farming! The pharmaceutical branch, that the Group sold in 2011, strengthened the Group's positions in animal nutrition and agrochemicals, where it is still present.

Specialty products: targeting value-added

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From the '60s, fluorine chemistry joined the portfolio, along with "specialty polymers". Sensitive to the changes of the time, Solvay began looking increasingly at products manufactured in much smaller amounts than mass produced ones, but generating higher unit margins. These would meet the demands of the electronics, aerospace and medicine sectors boosted by technological progress and keen on advanced applications.

From 2011, the integration of Rhodia, which was pursuing the same strategy, has reinforced the group's approach. Among its flagship products: vanilla aromas, intelligent textile fibers, rare earth-based solutions for flat screens and automotive catalysts and surfactants for cosmetics and detergents.

Tomorrow, ‘green’ products to meet global challenges

Which will be tomorrow's star products?  Probably those that help solve the major problems facing the planet. In line with these major trends, the Group is focusing on solutions that consume less raw materials and energy and are more environmentally friendly. Illustrating the potential of the group's century-old products, bicarbonate is used today to control and purify air emissions. Also joining this sustainable development process are and will be the latest fruits of Solvay innovation: silicas for low-energy tires, components for batteries with reduced environmental impact, membranes for hydrogen fuel cells, water-efficient production processes and more…