The Innovator
Agriculture is Chemistry
Today using carbohydrates instead of hydrocarbons is an accepted practice. But when Gardini began producing fuel, plastic, ink, and detergents from agricultural waste and raw material, the world was of a very different opinion.
by Marco Magrini

Creativity, neuroscientists and psychologists say, lies in the ability to discern new paths where others see only dense forest. It is not a secondary faculty, or some optional feature of the mind. Without the creativity humans have demonstrated over the last 5000 years, they would never have been able to climb the million steps that lie between the cave and the international space station now orbiting the earth. It is creativity that allows scientists to unravel the secrets of nature, musicians to generate forms and melodies never heard before, and architects to design buildings previously unimagined. Creativity is useful to everyone. Including entrepreneurs.

Argentina, 1984, Christmas Eve. As every other year, Raul Gardini has come with his family, friends, and collaborators to the Fazenda Las Cabezas to vacation in nature more pristine and beautiful even than his beloved Pianura Padana in Italy. Seated at the breakfast table before dawn, the entrepreneur from Ravenna is in top form, his conversation soaring, perhaps over the heads of the others at the table. “In four years a new European law will come into effect banning lead in gasoline which is added to prevent knocking but is also toxic. In its place we can use ethanol, generated from agricultural surplus, and kill two birds with one stone.”

Ten months later, the leader of the Ferruzzi group flies to Brussels to propose this plan to commissioner Frans Andriessen. The idea has the full backing of French farmers, who see in it a good business opportunity. Curiously, Italian farmers are not onboard. To tell the truth, nor is Italian industry: the leading Italian car manufacturer states that the automobile industry is already in crisis and that the replacement of lead should be carried out “without improvisation.” The top Italian oil company, in contrast, is already investing in a petroleum-based anti-knocking compound and pays no attention to the idea.

Gardini’s innovative vision is not limited to agricultural surpluses and ethanol; it is vastly more far reaching. “We can solve the problem of agricultural surpluses with ethanol,” he writes in 1988 as the plan languishes in Brussels,” and accelerate research into plants and the use of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in a completely innovative manner. This insight pulls us into the environmental realm on the side of agriculture-derived energy and the chemical industry, but with the goal of producing alternatives to petroleum products.”

Writings and autographs:

Press Review

Way back in 1988, four years before the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, when the United Nations first admitted the existence of the environmental crisis, few even dreamed of trying to find a substitute for lead, not to mention for oil itself. The combustion of oil, gas, and coal releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which has the unfortunate collateral effect of heating the planet by trapping infrared radiation. Before the Rio Summit, many environmentalists spoke about this, but few politicians and no entrepreneurs did. Except the visionaries.

In Italian, the adjective “visionary” refers to a person who has “visions, hallucinations, supernatural visitations” or “who holds as true things that do not correspond to reality.” This is curious, as in English, the first definition of “visionary” is “thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom”.

One year earlier, in 1987, something important happened. Gardini took over Montedison, Italy’s leading private chemical company, which had a history marked by scandal, power plays, and intrigue. The entrepreneur now found himself in the happy position (for him) of having to rethink the strategic orientation of Italian industry.

One area of possible synergy between the agricultural soul of the Ferruzzi Group and its new industrial core in the chemical sector leaps immediately to mind. In an article in “Agridistribution,” the French agribusiness journal, Gardini says with striking incision: “As we clearly see in the miraculous process of photosynthesis, agriculture is chemistry, and green chemistry is the next revolution that will develop exponentially.”

The concept of “green chemistry” will be not be coined until four years later by Yale professor Paul Anastas to indicate the design and production of chemical compounds that are not harmful but rather beneficial to the environment. It is an idea far broader than that suggested by Gardini because it includes inorganic chemistry. Though, of course, it also includes biochemistry -and the resulting bioeconomy- that Gardini had envisioned.

It is interesting to note that another great entrepreneur had the same idea and put it in practice long ago. Between 1910-1915, Henry Ford, inventor of the mass-produced automobile, manufactured certain models of cars from materials derived from grain, hemp, and wood that ran on a soy-based biofuel. Unfortunately, the discovery of vast oil reserves occurred at about the same time and guaranteed a massive flow of low-cost energy. Ford’s idea of a carbohydrate-based industry was to end up in the dustbin of history.

Carbohydrates and hydrocarbons have a lot in common: both are composed of carbon and hydrogen atoms (carbohydrates have oxygen as well), though in very different configurations. This is not surprising given that hydrocarbons are simply deposits of organic material -the remains of flora and fauna from millions of years ago- cooked in the bowels of the earth under immense compression. As fossil fuels, they are a non-renewable energy source and once they are burned, they are gone.

Why then not use carbohydrates, which plants produce through photosynthesis, to generate a perennially renewable harvest to gradually replace hydrocarbons? After all, as Gardini often pointed out, agriculture is chemistry.

This is the intuition that the new president of Montedison begins to spread far and wide. A perfect setting for getting across his message is the packed main auditorium of the University of Bologna, where he was invited to deliver an address and receive an honorary degree. “In the near future, agro-biotechnology will have a central role,” Gardini states in his lecture. “This technology will allow us to drastically reduce the agricultural use of chemical products which, while they made the Green Revolution possible, also contribute to the degradation of the environment. This new mode of agriculture, in addition to being environmentally friendly, will be able to produce clean, renewable raw materials in the quantities required by industry. Detergents, plastics, adhesives, lubricants can all be produced from agricultural raw materials. Not to mention the potential of biomass for energy production, which is already an important factor in many countries, where urban pollution and rising oil costs are making it an absolute ecological, economic, and strategic necessity (but also an opportunity).”

Awarding Ceremony for Honorary Degree in Agriculture – Bologna 7 April 1987

Speech by Raul Gardini at the University of Bologna – April 1987
Documents: the Ferruzzi Quaderni

The Green Revolution took place in the late 1960s. Just as an exploding global population was generating fears that the world would not be able to feed itself, American agronomist Norman Borlaug came up with a combination of genetic selection, improved irrigation techniques, and increased fertilizer and pesticide use that dramatically increased agricultural output. This “revolution” was to save Mexico and India from food shortages and today allows billions of people to survive and have enough to eat.

But the world must do better. When Borlaug won the Nobel Prize, the global population was three and a half billion. The day Gardini gave his lecture in Bologna in 1987, it was 5 billion. Today there are 7.5 billion people on the planet, and by 2042, projections are for 9 billion.

Moreover, the entrepreneur from Ravenna stressed, as always bucking convention, excessive use of fertilizer has negative collateral effects, like the eutrophication of rivers. “Detergents, plastics, adhesives, lubricants” as well as fertilizers and fuel can all be produced from – listen carefully – renewable sources.

But for this to occur, Gardini warns, there is one unavoidable precondition: scientific research.

The search for new unimagined paths forward and a global understanding of our problems are not enough to make a true innovator. “The best way to predict the future,” said American computer scientist Alan Kay, “is to create it.” In other words, take action, build, set processes in motion. “Vision without action is mere dreaming,” says a Japanese proverb.

Just a few weeks after the takeover of Montedison, Gardini decides to leap into action. He summons to his headquarters in Milan’s Foro Buonaparte the top brass of the Donegani Institute. The organization has an impressive pedigree: formed in 1941 at the behest of engineer Guido Donegani, president of Montecatini, its members included Nobel laureate Giulio Natta, and it made essential contributions to the formulation of important new plastic compounds. Montecatini and Edison merged in 1966 to make Montedison.

After the customary pleasantries, Gardini launched into a passionate high-flying discussion. He entrusted the researchers with an unexpected task: to marry agriculture and chemistry and discover new technologies to initiate the replacement of hydrocarbons with carbohydrates. “Some of my colleagues thought it was a farce,” recalls Amilcare Collina, then managing director of the institute,. “To me it seemed like a great opportunity.”

Without delay a team of researchers is formed and begins to brainstorm. In the last analysis, the raw materials to work with were starch and vegetable oils, both pillars of the Ferruzzi empire. Within two months, Collina proposes a raft of possible solutions to Gardini, who gives the green light to all that can be implemented immediately.

A new company is formed, Fertec (Ferruzzi Research and Technology), headed by Collina, whose first move was to develop a biodegradable polyethylene made from corn, commercially baptized as Mater-Bi. To demonstrate its viability, Gardini makes a deal with Disney and on 9 July 1989, a perfectly functional and completely biodegradable camera made from Mater-Bi, with mouse ears, is released as an accessory sold with the Italian Mickey Mouse comic book, Topolino. Barely a year has passed since the meeting at Foro Bonaparte. Other tests confirm the promise of Mater-Bi, and in 1990 Gardini forms Novamont –the new Montedison- to produce and market it.

Kevlar lamps and table designed by Gae Aulenti, 1989

Raul Gardini with Rita Levi Montalcini – Ravenna, Premio Guidarello, 19 October 1991
The biodegradable camera produced with the Novamont mater-bi and offered as an attachment to “Topolino” on July 9th 1989
Amilcare Collina, former CEO of the Donegani Institute

Meanwhile, Diesel-Bi is developed, a proto-biodiesel that the Montedison group begins production of in a bio-refinery in Livorno. Next comes Celus-Bi, a new detergent that uses oxygenated starch in the place of zeolites of inorganic origin. “Obviously we also moved ahead with work on a bio-ethanol, which Gardini had given his support to years earlier, but it was clear by then that hydrocarbons were replaceable in all of their myriad applications,” said Collina

Also in July 1989, the daily paper Il Messaggero (which had been in the stock portfolio of Montedison for years) published a complete issue with ink derived entirely from soybean oil rather than from the toxic aromatic hydrocarbons most ink was made from. “The very next day,” Collina continued,”the president of Federchimica calls me to ask whether we had lost our minds: the ink producers were protesting.” Nearly the same thing had occurred with bioethanol, biodiesel, and bioplastic. “Only the biodetergents didn’t spark protests,” he adds, smiling. “The reason was simple: they were the only products that we hadn’t started production of.”

Gardini is not a man to be swayed by adversity. This is partly because his perspective is not limited to Italy. Moreover, after the rapid-fire acquisition of Leisieur, Koipe, Central Soya, Beghin Say, Tate & Lyle, Cereol and Montedison, Ferruzzi is a fully global company. And there is one more reason: outside of Italy, Gardini’s strategic vision is widely recognized, applauded, and encouraged.

The Wall Street Journal includes Ferruzzi in its list of the 55 companies with “global leadership for the ‘90s.” Harvard Business School publishes a case study of the group, focusing on Gardini’s agro-bio-chemical strategy and highlighting, among other things, that Ferruzzi was the first firm in the world to maintain an environmental register of its CO2 emissions (seven years before the signing of the Kyoto Protocol). When the 57-year-old Gardini is invited to speak at the Sorbonne to address an auditorium packed with students and invited guests, he is welcomed as a top manager of a multinational, equally at ease with industrial strategy and geopolitics.

 


 

«As shown in the astonishing process of photosynthesis, agriculture is chemistry, and green chemistry will be the next revolution to develop exponentially»
From an article on Gardini
«Il Sole 24 Ore», 1989

 


 

«New technologies for the production of biodegradable materials and the development of new plants to produce foods and clean energy. And by clean energy, I mean with minimal CO2 emissions from fossil fuels»
Interview
«Agridistribution», 1989

 


 

«The period of exploiting the planet’s limited and environmentally-damaging resources is approaching the breaking point: continuing down this road will exhaust the planet, poison it, and make it impossible to solve its problems»
Interview for the book
«A Modo Mio», 1989

 


 

But Gardini was also convinced that innovation and research would lead to lighter and lighter materials, both more flexible and more durable, even of inorganic origin.

“New research to create new materials to replace their traditional counterparts, with the goal of reducing environmental damage,” the entrepreneur writes in one of his many densely packed journals. “The performance of the new materials is beyond dispute, and regarding the replacement of metals, or at least many of them, in their traditional uses, everything will be lighter, less bulky, and more durable. This revolution has already begun and will rapidly sweep the world. All that is necessary is accelerating the practical application of what we already know.”

As usual, he wastes no time putting this idea into practice, founding the Tencara consortium, which will produce the high-tech components of the sailboat Il Moro di Venezia, finalist in the 1992 Americas Cup.

Creativity. Vision. Action. These are the qualities that define the true innovators, and the legacy they bequeath to those who come after them.

Biofuels are a reality of today’s world. Europe has long forgotten the problem of agricultural surpluses. Ethanol is no longer used as an anti-knock additive but as a fuel itself. American cars are built to run on a mix of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline; Brazil, the second largest producer, favors a 25% ethanol mix. In 2014, world production of ethanol was 90 billion liters. During 2008 food crisis, the production of biofuels was blamed for diverting a large portion of American corn into gas tanks. Since then, however, technology has leapt ahead and third generation bioethanol can be produced from cellulose, the carbohydrate par excellence. In other words, you can now make ethanol from any agricultural byproduct and leave food for the table.

But the replacement of petroleum that Gardini envisioned has become an emergency. The world must end its dependence on fossil fuels as soon as possible. Since the end of the 1800s the scientific community has known that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere raises the temperature of the planet. True, the “carbon cycle” is an integral part of photosynthesis and without some CO2 in the air the earth would be an uninhabitable ball of ice. But last year alone the human race pumped 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels extracted from the depths of the earth. The effects of this on the climate are long term and could in theory transform the characteristics of the planet. If it’s going to stop burning hydrocarbons, the world will need (among other things) to use carbohydrates as an energy source.

Meanwhile, Novamont became a global leader in the production of plastics from vegetable matter. Mater-Bi has gone from being a fringe idea to a widely used biodegradable product, in many places (Italy for one) mandated by law as a replacement for petroleum-derived plastic bags, which last for decades in waste dumps. Under the leadership of Catia Bastioli, Novara has dramatically accelerated the development of third generation so-called bio-refineries that produce plastics and chemical compounds from renewable plants products grown in the area, using energy generated from “waste”. This is recognized as a great opportunity to reconvert decommissioned industrial sites. Biomaterials and the bioeconomy are no longer a fantasy.

The success of Il Moro di Venezia focused the spotlight on the technologies that produced the materials developed by Tencara. In the twenty-plus years since that time, advances in nanotechnology and synthetic biology have made possible formerly inconceivable molecular constructions and the discovery of new materials, in particular graphene, a bidimensional carbon fiber 100 times stronger than steel that is opening the way for new processes, new products, and new businesses.

Without almost anybody noticing, the modern world has moved in the direction indicated by Raul Gardini, one of those rare figures who was an entrepreneur and an innovator at the same time.

Marco Magrini is a journalist. As senior correspondent for Il Sole 24 Ore, where he worked for 24 years, he covered the evolution of the Ferruzzi group from 1990-1993. In 2003 he was awarded the Premio Guidarello for the article “Gardini, the Days of Silence.”