Czech Chemistry: A Tradition of Innovation and Prosperity
The chemicals industry is one of the key branches of the manufacturing sector. Without modern chemistry, traditional fields such as medicine, pharmacy and food-production would be primitive, and newer sectors such as computer and information technology, environmental protection and space research would be practically unthinkable. The origins of the chemicals industry in the Czech Republic date back to the end of the eighteenth century and are linked to the production of sulphuric acid. The country’s first chemical plant was established in 1778 in Velká Lukavice. Since that time, of course, the industry has undergone fundamental quantitative and qualitative changes that have substantially influenced how it operates. During the period between the world wars, Czech chemical companies were heavily involved in international trade. In the second half of the twentieth century, emphasis was placed mainly on the development of heavy chemistry. The 1990s saw the necessary restructuring and privatization of the chemicals sector. The current environment in the Czech chemicals industry can be characterized as stable, both from the perspective of the ownership structure as wall as the production base, which is qualitatively comparable with the foreign competition. The intermediate-product base in the Czech Republic is sufficiently well developed and domestic companies have been successful in exporting their products. The chemicals industry accounts for more than 15% of manufacturing, which is comparable with that of other European Union member states.
Classification of the chemicals industry in the Czech Republic:
By its classification, the Czech chemicals industry differs from the definition in most countries of the European Union. Besides the chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, petroleum refining and the rubber and plastics industry are also included in the classification in the Czech Republic. In general terms, the chemicals industry is defined as the sum of the aggregation of NACE 19 (manufacture of coke and refined petroleum products), NACE 20 (manufacture of chemicals and chemical products), NACE 21 (manufacture of pharmaceutical products and preparations) and NACE 22 (manufacture of rubber and plastic products).
The Czech chemicals industry in figures
The chemicals industry is among the three most significant industrial sectors in the Czech Republic. The industry employs more than 100,000 people and accounts for 13% of the country’s gross domestic product. The situation in the sector in 2007 can be viewed positively despite rising prices of petroleum and energy, which are among the key factors in the development of the entire sector. Positive factors contributing to the industry’s improved results include the growth of competitiveness among companies and the inflow of foreign investment into the sector. Neighbouring countries, with Germany at the forefront, are among the most important trading partners in the area of chemicals. These countries’ share in the total foreign trade in chemical products amounted to 57% in 2006, of which petroleum processing accounted for 90%, the chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries 48% and the rubber and plastics industry 57%. The chemicals-industry trade balance was passive, as imports continued to exceed exports.
During the fifteen-year period from 1993 to 2007, CzechInvest supported a total of 134 investment projects in the chemicals industry. These investments, which were worth USD 2.815 billion, created a total of 13,590 new jobs.
Key players in the market
Unipetrol Group is the most significant company in the Czech chemicals industry. The company focuses mainly on petroleum processing, distribution of fuel and production of petrochemicals. The group’s member companies include Benzina, Česká rafinérská and Paramo, as well as the Research Institute of Inorganic Chemistry in Ústí nad Labem. Unipetrol employs approximately 4,000 people and its net profit in 2007 amounted to CZK 1.3 billion.
Another key player in the Czech market is Holding Agrofert, which associates seven Czech companies operating in the chemicals industry (e.g. Synthesia, Lovochemie, Deza and Precolor). Lovochemie, whose profit reached CZK 117 million in 2007, is the biggest fertiliser producer in the Czech Republic. Established more than a century ago and currently employing 621 people, the company specialises primarily in nitrogen and multi-compound fertilisers in both solid and liquid form. Based in Valašské Meziřící, Deza was established in 1892 and is an important processor of raw benzol and coking tar. The company employs over 1,000 workers and it recorded a profit of CZK 485.9 million in 2007. With its annual processing capacity of 160,000 tonnes of crude benzol and 450,000 tonnes of crude coking tar, Deza is a significant firm in the world market.
With its long history and broad range of products, Synthos Kralupy (formerly Kaučuk) is one of the traditional representatives of the Czech chemicals industry. The company’s profit in 2007 amounted to CZK 814 million and it currently employs nearly 900 workers. Styrene-butadiene rubber is used in the automotive, rubber and footwear industries, while polystyrene can be found in the electrical engineering, consumer-goods and food sectors. The acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene polymer is used in the production of exterior and interior automobile components.
The Hungarian firm BorsodChem, which entered the Czech market in 2000, concentrates primarily on the production of aniline, which is used in the final production of MDI and rubber chemicals, as well as cyclohexylamine delivered mainly to foreign countries for the production of cyclomats and chemicals for treating boiler feed water. The company employs more than 400 people in Ostrava and its 2007 profit reached CZK 65.7 million.
Zentiva is part of a multinational corporation that focuses on the development, production and sale of modern pharmaceutical products. The company has been active in the Czech market since 2003 and employs over 1,000 people. The Zentiva group’s products are intended for the treatment of pain, cardiovascular and central-nervous-system disorders, urinary and sexual dysfunction and respiratory illnesses. In the area of dietary supplements, the company is mainly involved in vitamin preparations.
Established in 1883, TEVA Pharmaceuticals CR (formerly IVAX) is one of the Czech Republic’s oldest and most significant companies engaged in drug production. In 2006 the company became a part of TEVA, a multinational group headquartered in Israel and one of the world’s leading producers of pharmaceuticals. The company’s broad portfolio includes generic drugs, primarily anti-asthmatics, cytostatics, immunosuppressants, hypolipidemics and antihypertensives. In 2007, the company had 188 employees in the Czech Republic and its profit exceeded CZK 2 million.
Lachema was established in 1964 and has since focused on the production of drugs for treating serious modern ailments. In 1999 the company entered a strategic partnership with the multinational giant PLIVA, which itself became a part of the global drugs concern Barr Pharmaceuticals in 2006. The largest segment of the company’s product portfolio comprises drugs used in the treatment of cancer. PLIVA-Lachema’s current strategy is focused mainly on generic drugs, particularly cytostatics and drugs for supportive therapy.
Extensive research and development
Investment in research and development is a key element in maintaining competitiveness in the chemicals industry. The Czech chemicals industry relies on a substantial scientific base not only in the institutes of the Academy of Science and universities, but also in sectoral and company research centres. Prominent centres in this area include, among others, the Research Institute of Organic Syntheses in Pardubice, Synpo Pardubice, the Research Institute of Inorganic Chemistry in Ústí nad Labem, the Research Institute of Antibiotics and Biotransformation in Roztoky, the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague, and the University of Pardubice. Joint laboratories of universities and industrial companies, such as the Research Centre for Complex Crude Oil Processing, are also important scientific platforms.
With 3,640 students, the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague is the largest school in its field not only in the Czech Republic but in the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. The institute has four faculties and continues the nearly 200-year tradition of instruction in technical chemistry.
The Research Institute of Organic Syntheses is the largest research and development platform of its kind. Applied research and development of chemical technology has been one of the institute’s key activities for more than 60 years. The institute has participated in projects primarily in the area of pigments, dyes, semi-finished chemical products and oxycellulose. A subsidiary, Synthesia, also offers products and services in the area of custom syntheses.
The Institute of Inorganic Chemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences was established in 1972 and is involved primarily in applied research and education. The institute is currently working on projects focused on, for example, production of nanoparticle titanium oxide for liquidating yperite and for producing virostatics, which in future should fully protect humanity against the AIDS virus.
The Association of the Chemicals Industry of the Czech Republic was established in 1990 as a voluntary association of organisations related to the refinery, chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries as well as the rubber and plastics industry. The ACI has more than 100 members that in 2006 achieved revenues in the amount of approximately CZK 230 billion, which represented 61% of the chemicals industry in the Czech Republic. The ACI’s members represent more than 80% of the workers in this industry and over 85% of total production in the aforementioned industrial sectors. The ACI actively represents and promotes the interests of the chemicals industry and is considered the most significant instrument of support for the chemicals business in the Czech Republic.
The Czech Society of Industrial Chemistry is a professional, non-profit science and technology organisation dating back to 1870. With more than 1,000 members, the Society’s aim is to support research and development, facilitate cooperation in the fields of chemistry and natural sciences, and to improve the education of specialists.
The Czech Chemical Society was established in 1866 and is one of Europe’s oldest organisations in the chemicals sector. Its activities are focused mainly on research and development, as most individual members operate in academia. The Society also organises educational activities, conferences, meetings, symposia and courses.
Czech ingenuity: from contact lenses to AIDS drugs
Czech scientists have contributed numerous inventions to the historical development of chemistry. Jaroslav Heyrovský and Otto Wichterle left their indelible stamp on the field, while Antonín Holý represents the pinnacle of Czech chemistry in the present.
The physicist and chemist Jaroslav Heyrovský (1890-1967) was the first Czech scientist to win the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to him in 1959 for his discovery and development of polarography and its use in analytical chemistry. Heyrovský’s method makes it possible to determine even the most imperceptible elements of studied solutions. Heyrovský constructed a device called a polarograph and established a new scientific discipline, polarography. His Czech successors later introduced computerised polarography, which is used both in laboratories and in the field. Polarography serves, for example, to determine the content of harmful substances in blood or heavy metals in water.
Considered to be the founder of macromolecular chemistry, Otto Wichterle (1913-1998) is another important Czech scientist who was responsible for perhaps as many as 150 inventions. His most famous, the soft contact lens, is now used by approximately 100 million people around the world. On Christmas Eve in 1961, Wichterle, assisted by his wife, produced the first four contact lenses on a centrifugal casting device that he had built from a Merkur children’s construction kit. The lenses were regular, with smooth edges that would not irritate the eye. Within a short time, the first generations of pneumatic-controlled semi-automated machines were prepared to mass-produce the lenses. A year later, they were being produced on fully automated electronically controlled machines and production spread throughout the world. Wichterle was also the first to develop the silon polymer fibre. Since 1993 an asteroid in our solar system has borne Wichterle’s name. In that same year, he was nominated for a Nobel Prize.
Antonín Holý has long been involved in research related to the treatment of AIDS. In 2004 this Czech chemist from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Academy of Sciences introduced a tablet that significantly prolongs the lives of AIDS patients by suppressing the virus in the early stages of the disease. The drug also has dramatically fewer side effects, as it replaces the large number of pills, sometimes as many as 13 that patients previously had to take throughout the day. Furthermore, the drug protects against transmission of the virus from mother to foetus. Antonín Holý is credited with more than 400 scientific findings and holds 60 patents. Among other things, he is also involved in the treatment of type-B hepatitis and was awarded the prestigious Descartes Prize of the European Union in 2001.