The Essential Small Molecules Challenge, launched by Air Liquide, was implemented to reinforce Air Liquide’s focus on science for accelerating innovation.

The winning projectes involved producing hydrogen (H2) out of water using solar energy, identifying sponge materials for high density storage and safe supply of gases, and last but not least, producing oxygen (O2) and carbon monoxide (Co) from carbon dioxide (CO2) in a sustainable way.

gasworld spoke exclusively to Air Liquide’s Vice-President of Research and Development (R&D), Olivier Letessier, about the competition and how the winners could aid the development of applications for industrial gases globally.

What are the possible benefits that could be achieved from the commercialisation of the three winning projects?

“The three selected topics of this Essential Molecules Challenge are addressing critical business issues for Air Liquide: green H2, oxygen production, gas storage and CO2 as a raw material. By connecting to international scientists and world class academics we are gathering state-of-the-art knowledge related to those specific topics.”

“Each winner is not only awarded with a prize but a long term collaboration with our R&D teams to mature their scientific proposals and transform them into innovative market technologies. This was a key success factor of the Challenge.”

How do these competitions affect the development of applications for industrial gases globally?

“O2, nitrogen (N2), H2, and CO2 amongst others are essential small molecules for life, matter and energy. They are part of Air Liquide’s core expertise and business but haven’t revealed all their potential yet. We launched this Challenge to reinforce our focus on science as a key ingredient of innovation.”

“The contest brought the scientific community and Air Liquide’s experts together to tackle societal challenges such as the environmental and energy transition thanks to collaborative methods of our m-Lab, “m” for molecules. The role of this multidisciplinary team is to bring science to our customers, finding new applications of our molecules to serve new usages/needs.”

Do you have a personal favourite out of the 3 winners?

“The competition was a tremendous success as can be seen from the high scientific quality of the projects submitted. The m-Lab community, supported by 80 internal experts took some months to make a rigorous and collaborative analysis and selection of the 130 proposals. As the Chair of the final Jury which included a Nobel Prize laureate and a L’Oreal-UNESCO laureate, I can’t express how difficult it was to come up with only three winners. How could I choose among breakthrough, exciting, value added projects such as Photo Electro Chemistry from Switzerland, Metal Organic Frameworks from Japan and Electrocatalysis from France? they are all my favourite!”

Is this the first competition of its kind?

“This is Air Liquide’s 1st scientific challenge and it is different from what I have seen in the industry for several reasons: It is related to sharp scientific knowledge, open sourcing spirit with long term collaboration, and leverages collective intelligence on a worldwide scale.”

“To accelerate our innovation process, we bet on tailor-made collaborations, starting from the customer and building answers with the best available skills and technological assets inside and outside the company.”

Are there any more competitions planned for the future?

“Yes of course. But first we will take the necessary time to leverage the existing proposals with a long term approach. Open innovation is a competence per se. Taking the time to create a good relationship with our partners is fundamental to bring the initial idea all the way to the market. Creating a durable community of scientific experts will make Air Liquide’s R&D move faster and innovate for society.”