Research, development & innovation
We have prioritized our R&D programs to support our short term and long term ambitions, focusing on the development of closed-loop material solutions.
We are consistently investing in research to meet the growing demand for clean mobility materials and for quality recycling of precious and other valuable metals. Besides our core strategic domains, we are exploring new developments in adjacent and new markets based on our expertise domains.
From production and process technology to deep knowledge of metallurgy and materials science, a significant part of our technology is delivered using Umicore R&D findings. Umicore also develops technology in collaboration with industrial or academic partners and, where appropriate, we protect our intellectual property with patents. 63 patents were filed in 2020.
Umicore continues to invest in R&D and to attract international scientific talent to develop the next generation of sustainable products and process technologies for our customers.
Umicore R&D employees cover 35 nationalities in 15 locations, and in 2020, 1 in 4 were women.
Over the past 5 years, the R&D investments increased by over 40%. In 2020 Umicore invested € 223 million on R&D, 6% more than in 2019, largely on rechargeable battery materials product and process technologies development, new business incubation and competence development. The R&D spend represented 7% of revenues and capitalized development costs accounted for € 32 million.
As a materials technology company, our future success depends on our ability to develop and market innovative products and services. We strive to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world and continuously search for new solutions for our customers. We dedicate our research and development (R&D) to solving some of the world’s largest societal challenges in the areas of clean mobility and clean air, resource scarcity and sustainability.
2020 R&D SPEND
Millions of Euros
The clean mobility trend, toward zero well-to-wheel emission ambitions, points to a combination of electric and hybrid vehicles, fuel cell vehicles and carbon neutrally-fueled internal combustion engines.
Umicore has a unique position in clean mobility materials across all drive-train technologies. It is one of three global leaders in emission control catalysts for internal combustion engines, a leading supplier of materials for rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles and catalysts for fuel cell applications.
Legislation increasingly requires gasoline vehicles to be equipped with particulate filters. Our work focuses on improved catalyst technologies for gasoline and diesel vehicles in a cost efficient way to meet these increasingly stringent regulations. For gasoline particulate filters (GPF), Umicore is optimizing the distribution of the catalytic material in the pores of the filter so that an optimal balance of backpressure, filtration efficiency and chemical reactivity is obtained.
In response to COVID-19, recovery projects worldwide accelerated the adoption of sustainable technologies, such as electric vehicles. The key to improving the total cost of EV ownership, and the environmental footprint of their batteries, is their increase in energy density. As battery-powered vehicles become mainstream, different user segments emerge, each with different cost and performance needs, presenting opportunities for tailored materials solutions. Research programs on cathode and anode materials with novel compositions, or for batteries working at a higher voltage, address these upcoming needs. To ensure synchronization with market demand, this type of innovation is often performed in close collaboration with our external partners who test samples of our next-generation products.
Hydrogen is a promising future energy carrier which is converted into clean electricity by fuel cells.
Umicore’s electrocatalysts play a crucial role in Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cells used in stationary and mobility applications on the global path to zero emissions. Our fuel cell catalyst portfolio covers all relevant technologies for both anode and cathode electrode applications. Working with platinum and platinum alloy on carbon catalysts as well as special protective additives, Umicore R&D improves the robustness of the fuel cell under critical operating conditions to achieve performance requirements in vehicle applications.
Umicore is the world’s leading recycler of complex waste streams containing precious and other valuable metals, including from batteries, electronics and catalysts. Umicore’s closed-loop business model will be a powerful strategic differentiator for the foreseeable future. Umicore’s recycling is not only the cornerstone in the sustainable development of several industries, but with the supply of metal based products and recycling under one roof, Umicore is also the partner of choice for the management of metals throughout the loop, providing reliable sourcing and financial optimization of both working capital and metal price exposure in the value chain.
Innovation projects for recycling follow industry trends closely. In 2020, our attention in battery recycling went beyond the recycling process, to the safety and ergonomics of operations and how these can be supported by automation and robotization. We started mapping what the future urban mine may look like and how this may inspire new flowsheets.
Digitalization and Industry 4.0 are powerful tools to create value in many domains. Three initiatives have been undertaken to scale these efficiently across the group: first, the definition of digitalization roles and the corresponding training programs; second, the choice of Umicore standard tools for certain business processes, such as financial planning, procurement or the storage and self-service analysis of operating data; third, the set-up of a central team that guides business units in the drafting and implementation of digitalization roadmaps. Such roadmaps aim at unlocking value through projects covering a spectrum of opportunities, from operational excellence, over the pro-active management of our EHS performance, to revolutionizing R&D.
A carbon neutral economy by 2050 will require further adoption of clean mobility solutions and renewable energy sources for electricity such as hydrogen and other alternative fuels with zero carbon footprint (synthetic fuels, e-fuels, biofuels, etc.). Clean cities with zero local emission and with zero-waste streams are the ultimate goal. The evolution towards zero-waste streams will put even more emphasis on circular economy to address resource scarcity in all smart sectors (mobility, IoT, Industry 5.0, etc.).
The push towards decarbonization of industry will form a Hydrogen economy with new opportunities for innovation in catalysis. Building on our expertise of fuel cell technologies in stationary and mobile applications, Umicore intensified the development efforts in the field of anode and cathode catalysts for green hydrogen production.
Value creation through innovation goes further than R&D. The New Business Incubation unit created in 2019 grew in 2020 to become the unit in which our long-term research projects and internal ventures, such as battery recycling, silicon composite anodes or chemical metal deposition solutions, are groomed to become mature businesses over a horizon of 5 to 10 years.
We continuously strengthen our in-house competence expertise in metallurgy, chemistry and material science, while constantly expanding our external collaboration network. Despite travel restrictions in 2020, Umicore remained committed to open innovation; a dedicated team facilitates the collaboration with dozens of research institutes, start-ups and universities worldwide. Foresight is crucial now, more than ever, and we composed a strategic insights and analysis team to develop a coherent view on future scenarios.
Often multiple innovation disciplines contribute to the result. For instance, the Umicore open innovation and digitalization teams helped in setting up the collaboration with an external partner to bring robotization expertise to battery recycling. In another example, Umicore, Imec and other partners have started to work together in the development of a new sensor for harsh industrial environments.
A worldwide, ever more diverse Umicore community of over 1300 scientists is collaborating with customers, academic and technology institutes to sharpen our skills, improve the quality of our products, develop our processes, speed up development, lower costs, improve safety and reduce our environmental impact.
World-class expertise is used and developed into effective building blocks of our innovation engine. The most important building blocks include:
Analytics, trace analysis and material characterization
Chemistry and PGM chemistry
Computational science including data science
Application testing and testing methods
Process technology and process scaling
These areas are all undergoing rapid developments, creating opportunities to improve our technology. We follow, test and develop these science and technology trends and integrate them in our development work.
Deeper understanding of thermodynamics, kinetics and complex element interactions are driving the speed of our development and help avoid excessive experimental or pilot validations. We work with worldwide consortia to develop and finetune methods that are applicable to Umicore’s different metallurgical flows.
Advances in modeling fuel insights on improving materials and on understanding and predicting performance. Surface engineering has become important in optimizing product performance, complementing our expertise in materials synthesis and colloid chemistry. Increased availability, development and deployment of accurate analytical methods provide operational efficiency and accelerate both our innovation process and learning speed.
Computational science and data science are essential at all phases of the innovation process and play a growing role in optimizing our workflows. Natural language processing in market and technology intelligence, image and pattern recognition, machine learning, amongst others, make computational science our fastest growing area of expertise.
Technology innovation and differentiation remain key for our future growth. Umicore’s forward-looking approach is fueled by our expanding expertise. The combination of detailed modeling and growing improvements in integrated process data, strengthened by artificial intelligence, accelerate process understanding and improvements. Our ambition is to grow our portfolio of collaborative programs focusing on measuring and understanding materials functionality, leading to better product design.
"We use the power of technology, innovation and data to help people have better lives
and to reduce our impact on the planet"
-- An Steegen, CTO
We continuously strive to transform sustainability into a competitive advantage.
When it comes to high-tech innovation, the unique characteristics of germanium are valuable in a whole host of applications, and the semiconductor is recognised as a critical material by the governing bodies of the European Union and the United States. To give just a few examples, germanium is used in fibre-optic cables required for 5G connectivity, in solar cells powering satellites and Mars rovers and in cutting-edge semiconductors.
Germanium: valuable & versatile
– but not simple to find
Because its elemental state isn't found in nature, most germanium is extracted through coal combustion or sourced as a by-product from the zinc production process. However – and crucial for Umicore as a supplier of sustainable materials – germanium can also be recycled.
Research has shown that germanium sourced through zinc production has a 85%-smaller carbon footprint than germanium sourced from coal, and recycled germanium boasts a 95%-smaller footprint. As a result, sustainable germanium is an important focal point for our circularity efforts.
Leading the entire industry
by defining sustainable best practices
We’ve made significant progress on our quest toward 100%-sustainable germanium, enabling us to set highly demanding industry benchmarks through our own operations. In fact, between 2015 and 2020, Umicore has reduced its supply of coal-sourced germanium by 50%. Today, 50% of the germanium used by Umicore is recycled and more than two-thirds of the remainder is recovered from industrial by-products. Thanks to these efforts, we are considered amongst the most sustainable germanium manufacturers worldwide.
Among the key milestones we've achieved through partnerships, Umicore:
signed multiple long-term agreements with a major company for sustainable germanium;
established multiple licensing and recycling agreements with international partners to extract and concentrate germanium from waste streams;
collaborated with a partner to develop an innovative, cost-effective process for germanium extraction from scrap and production waste;
guided a photovoltaic technology business in methods to optimise the collection of germanium from their new manufacturing processes.
Shaping the future
of circularity in high tech – & beyond
In addition to identifying and developing new ways to source germanium sustainably, these achievements have also led to deep, lasting and impactful relationships with our customers and partners. The positive outcomes are many and mutual, including financial benefits for every party in the supply chain, a stronger global focus on germanium as a circular resource, more environmentally friendly industrial processes, and much more.
Paving the way for a circular economy
At Umicore, we see it as our responsibility as a global industrial player to commit to ensuring a healthier planet for all. We're proud of what we have achieved in collaboration with our partners, and look forward to further closing the germanium loop through innovative, multidisciplinary projects.
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