1863-2013: soda ash, first of all and always
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.
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.
Hydrogen peroxide is also Solvay!
Life sciences, a world apart
Specialty products: targeting value-added
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.