Maria Soliman currently coordinates the technology efforts for the global circular economy activity for global chemical manufacturing company, SABIC, from the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen.
Born in Kronach, Germany, Maria Soliman has always felt like a woman in a man’s world. From her time studying physics at the University of Darmstadt, where she was one of only five women out of two hundred students, Maria has had to forge her own path. “I followed my own curiosity, and just wanted to figure the world out, and wasn’t thinking about a career at all. My teacher – already nearing retirement at the time – thought a woman’s place was in the kitchen. This motivated me to prove them otherwise.” Maria went on to get a PhD in Physics, with a focus on polymers.
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After a year and a half in the United States (for her post-doctorate) researching the melting behavior of complex polymer blends, she went to work for DSM in 1995, which was then partially acquired by SABIC in 2002.
Maria found herself, once again, in a man’s world. “When I would first travel to SABIC headquarters, in Riyadh, you would only see a few women in the office, but I was used to it then. As a woman, I was always a pioneer but it never annoyed me. You always have to fight a little harder when you’re the odd ‘man’ out. I like being a woman, so they either accept me as I am or I would find a position somewhere else.”
I was a woman, a foreigner and an academic: three strikes against meMaria Soliman
Forging her own path
At the beginning, Maria remembers the culture at DSM as being typical of Limburg. “The first thing I did was learn Dutch. These days, you’ll find over 40 different nationalities here, and English is the working language. You’re on the phone with people from China, the US and Saudi Arabia every day. That wasn’t the case back then. There was also a huge difference between academics and other employees at the time. People always made a point about that. I was a woman, a foreigner and an academic: those were three strikes against me. But I felt at home at DSM from day one. They would set a big pile of reports and measured data down on my desk and say, there’s something we don’t understand about our materials; can you help us figure it out? I immediately gained their trust and was given freedom. What could be better than that? I was immediately a colleague. “You know something about plastics? Go ahead.”
Results in the real world
Solimans role at DSM sparked her passion for research. “If you want to succeed in research you have to be curious, think outside the box, come up with new ideas and not be afraid to try them out. That’s the mentality you need as a researcher.” She still clearly remembers her first contribution to DSM 27 years ago. “When we incorporated elastic materials to our portfolio, we wanted to know why it was so elastic and behaved like rubber. I looked into it and discovered ways to improve the material and its applications. “This is what I like best about the industry: you can see the results of your work in the real world. Materials developed at DSM were being used around the world. My research contributed to the development of countless materials; for example, in seals for car windows.”
SABIC’s acquisition of DSM’s petrochemicals business in 2002, came as a blessing. “Polyethylene and polypropylene are the heart and soul of the company, and this quickly became clear. It’s a good feeling to work on something that’s considered important and impacts people’s lives. There was an appreciation for research and innovation from the beginning, complementing what was going on in Riyadh. There are naturally large cultural differences, but this is what I find so exciting. In Saudi Arabia, people take the time to build something together. It may take a little longer to create trust, but this is also what keeps it resistant.”
When Maria started at SABIC, she was once again in a man’s world. “When I first went to the headquarters in Riyadh, I was that odd ‘man’ out again as a woman. There were a limited number of women working in the chemical industry, but I felt respected from the very beginning. Colleagues talk to each other based on your technical knowledge. The people I work with there have also all studied in the US or England. In the end, we’re all just people, and there are some you like and some you don’t; it’s the same all over the world.”
However, despite the historical underrepresentation of women within STEM, and the chemical industry, SABIC has made and continues to make significant steps to close this gender gap and empower women.
I still believe in a future for plastic. I don’t think we have too many types of plastic, but we are too careless about how we recycle themMaria Soliman
Maria Soliman has been a research fellow at SABIC since 2016, and has held the position of global circular technology coordinator since 2020. She is trying to build a broad portfolio for future business in circularity. “I still believe in a future for plastic. I don’t think we have too many types of plastic, but we are too careless about how we recycle them. A world without plastic, hmmm. I know that a lot of food is thrown away in third world countries because it hasn’t been properly wrapped in plastic, for example. Of course, it doesn’t make any sense to use three different types of packaging on top of each other. The primary purpose of packaging is to get goods from point a to point b safely and hygienically. It shouldn’t be just left lying around, or incinerated. The point is to do something good with these high-quality materials. For example, the entire transition to electric cars would be inconceivable without plastic. Electric car batteries can’t be made without plastic so that’s not going to happen either. We have to design a variety of applications that always enable us to answer the following question: what happens to the product at the end of its life cycle? How can I retrieve and reuse this valuable plastic?”
Knowledge of plastics
SABIC has research departments in India, China, USA, Saudi Arabia and Geleen. The latter is known for its knowledge of plastics, and is considered to be the engine driving the company toward circularity and sustainability, making plastics in a CO2-neutral manner without using fossil fuels. The two SABIC research buildings at the Brightlands employs 300 people, with 1,500 technology employees worldwide.
However, Maria feels more still needs to be done. “At present, we are only retrieving 10 to 20 percent of plastic from our waste. This is a ridiculously low percentage. Together with Brightlands, we submitted a proposal to the European Union showing how we can unite all of these different recycling technologies to sort waste. The way we separate waste is based on technology from 30 years ago. What we are working on is finding a way to create a more modern sorting facility that can vastly increase the amount of plastic recycled. This is what we’re working on with all of these partners here.”
This new chemical recycling plant is now being built at the Chemelot site. “This is a huge development, but the amount of plastic we get from waste this way could be much higher. This is why our research is still in full swing. There is continued pressure from our customers as well, who want to see this technology implemented as soon as possible. Everyone is working on this, and that’s a good thing. The entire industry has to change. No one can do this alone.”
Maria is now responsible for deciding who works on which research projects, and where they do it. Her job involves a lot of travel in order to get partners such as the World Economic Forum and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste involved and she also attends conferences all over the world to share knowledge and gain new knowledge about key industry developments. She is particularly positive about what goes on at Brightlands Chemelot Campus. “Thanks to the presence of the students, the university and the institutes, we are able to build something significant here. We talk to each other, listen, and ask questions. We start from scratch and work toward a solution, which is what makes this campus so special”.
Will the efforts to become CO2-neutral ultimately succeed? Maria is convinced they will. “At SABIC, we are now building an electric cracker. Crackers are the biggest CO2 emitter we have, using an electric cracker will help dramatically reduce our emissions, and we are expecting this to become fully operational in the not-too-distant future. We can also transfer the developments and knowledge we have here in Geleen to other places. I can take this with me wherever I go. People are so impressed with what we are doing at Brightlands, and the collaboration between business and the university is what they are trying to achieve in many other places around the world. The work going on between SABIC and Brightlands demonstrates how successful this can be.