BASF Shifts R&D Focus
Company to Offer Competence 'In The Broadest Sense'
Technology - After announcing the framework of a new R&D strategy in the spring of last year, BASF is beginning to reveal in detail just how it is affecting its research operations. One important aspect of the strategy was that its R&D activities would be globalized so that by 2020 50% of its research would be conducted outside of Europe — in Asia and North America — compared to 27% at present.
However, a key aspect of the new R&D policy, which is now underpinning its research objectives, is that the company is moving the focus of its research beyond the discovery of new molecules.
"Developing and producing chemicals is no longer enough to manage the challenges of the future," Dr. Andreas Kreimeyer, BASF's research executive director and member of the board of executive directors told CHEManager Europe at the company's recent annual research press conference in Ludwigshafen. "BASF has to offer chemical competence in the broadest sense to accomplish the paradigm shift from molecules to systems, components and functional materials - from chemicals to chemistry," he continued. "This means that BASF must be well positioned to offer a combination of chemicals, application know-how, IP and service."
The views expressed by Dr. Kreimeyer echoed those he had written in paper earlier in the year in the German academic chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie (published by Wiley, CHEManager Europe's parent company) in which he had argued that the aim of innovation in the chemical industry is now "on intelligent chemistry in the form of holistic systems".
The direction in chemicals R&D was "increasingly toward functional materials — from raw materials, basic products and intermediates towards system solutions," he said.
As a result, in the chemical industry and also in academia, chemistry research had adopted interdisciplinary, cross-sectional approach in which different areas of expertise were brought together to meet specific societal needs.
"While at the beginning of its history, chemistry was characterized by the discovery and development of substances, today we investigate and design complex systems as well as the functions of materials, constantly bearing in mind their use along the entire value chain," Dr. Kreimeyer said in the paper.
BASF has the biggest R&D budget in the chemical industry, amounting in 2012 to €1.7 billion against €1.6 billion in the previous year. It has 10,500 employees working on around 3,000 R&D projects. The focus on materials is reflected in its targeting of 11 growth areas in its seven customer industries of transportation, construction, consumer goods, health and nutrition, electronics, agriculture and energy and resources.
In most of the growth fields the company sees innovative materials and their interaction with other materials as being a crucial means for meeting major social needs across much of the world. They include segments like batteries for mobility, electrical power management, wind energy, water solutions, organic electronics, medical solutions, heat management in construction and lightweight composites.
In addition to having business potential, the growth areas have been selected because they have high barriers to entry in terms of technologies and financial and human resources, and they require chemistry as an enabler.
With population growth and increasing living standards forecast to drive up global demand for energy by over 50% by 2050, BASF has singled out energy efficiency and climate protection as a big area for research. They account for around a third of current total R&D expenditure with innovations in materials and their application being a priority.
In wind energy, for example, whose installed electricity-generating capacity is expected to rise by over 50% in 2011-2020, BASF is already providing a broad range of products, including coatings, adhesives, resins, foams, grouts and admixtures. This portfolio enables it to develop multi-material systems to raise the performance of wind turbines.
This multi-material research covers matrices for composites, interfaces between composites and coatings, simplified processes for making blades and other turbine components and modeling systems for testing component materials.
"Needs in the wind energy market like greater energy efficiencies, cost reductions, longer blades and more durability can benefits from innovative materials, systems, processes and design," Dr. Holger Ruckdaeschel, BASF's head of systems research wind energy, told the press conference.
In solar energy the company has a long-term research project for the development of materials for a roll-on-roll (R2R), low-temperature coating process for photovoltaic thin films to enable solar power to compete cost effectively with other energy sources.
"The prime target is the reduction of PV system costs," explained Dr. Peter Erk, BASF's head of research for organic photovoltaic (OPV) systems. "Thin film PV technologies provide flexible, low-weight solutions for the cost efficient integration of solar power (in buildings and vehicles)."
But there are major challenges ahead. The amounts of materials used in PV systems needs to be considerably reduced. At the same time the energy efficiency levels of OPV cells have to be raised from a current 8-12% to over 15% to be commercially viable.
"By replacing active materials used in existing organic PV materials with inorganic dyes (for dye sensitized solar cells) we are now getting higher efficiencies," said Mr. Erk. "We need a large number of different scientific competences to get from chemicals to PV systems, because it includes synthesis, modeling, formulation, printing, device building and testing."
Because its research has become more multidisciplinary, BASF now recruits a wider range of scientific competences to its R&D staff, both in Europe and elsewhere. At the same time the company's research staff is interacting more with scientists and experts outside BASF.
The recently opened Innovation Campus Asia Pacific in Shanghai, BASF's largest research site in the region, has 450 scientists from 17 different business units focused on functional materials and system solutions in areas like household and personal care appliances, lighting, coatings, sealants and polyurethanes for shoes.
"This wide variety of topics requires co-operation between material scientists, engineering experts, business partners and customers-and also active exchange with the scientific community," said Dr. Kreimeyer.
The company now has what it calls an interdisciplinary know-how Verbund comprising a string of R&D centers around the world linked to universities and other scientific institutions and business partners. The Verbund includes an interdisciplinary global network of over 600 universities, research institutes and companies with a wide variety of scientific expertise.
Within the network are collaborative entities set up by the company itself. One of these is the North American Center for Research in Advanced Materials. This gives it access to researchers from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the study of micro and nano-structured polymers, lightweight materials and nature-emulating biomimetic materials.
In Germany it has helped set up with partners like the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society a joint BasCat laboratory at Technical University Berlin on the development of catalysts for projects like the conversion of methane to ethylene.
However, the company is also using the traditional approach of making acquisitions to gain more knowledge of specific areas of research. Over the last few years it has gained substantial expertise in battery materials with the aid of takeovers of companies and businesses specializing in the field.
In June it strengthened its position in the growth field of electrical power management with the acquisition of Deutsche Nanoschicht, a Rheinbach, Germany-based developer of a process for using chemical solution deposition for making thin layers of a broad range of materials.
BASF had already been working with company on the low-cost manufacture of high-temperature superconductors which are able to carry electric current virtually without loss, considerably improving the efficiency of electricity distribution.
The company is continuing to measure its innovative strength in the amount of sales of new products. By 2020 it wants to achieve €30 billion sales from products launched on the market since 2010. This compares with €8.5 billion of sales in 2012 from products that had been on the market less than five years.
Last year the company introduced 250 new products. But in the broader context of its concept of ‘intelligent chemistry (within) holistic systems', the numbers were much higher. "If new formulations and optimized existing products are added, the total reaches several thousand," said Dr. Kreimeyer.