BASF promotes digitalisation in R&D worldwide

With chemical industry's largest supercomputer creating new opportunities for researchers to carry out complex modelling, BASF presents wide-ranging uses of digital tools to develop innovative products.

Chemist Dr Fangfang Chu (left) and simulation expert Dr Eduard Schreiner of BASF discuss the computer simulation of a microencapsulation.
Chemist Dr Fangfang Chu (left) and simulation expert Dr Eduard Schreiner of BASF discuss the computer simulation of a microencapsulation.

BASF's strategic goal is to decisively take advantage of the enormous opportunities that digitalisation offers along the entire value chain.

In doing so, research and development (R&D) play a key role when it comes to further increasing innovative strength and competitiveness by using new technologies. At its Research Press Conference on 29 June 2017 in Ludwigshafen, the company provided insight into the digitalisation of chemical research as well as its tools and applications.

“With the increased use of digital technologies in R&D, we are strengthening BASF’s position as the world’s most innovative company in the chemical industry,” said Dr Martin Brudermüller, vice chairman, board of executive directors, and chief technology officer, BASF SE.

In particular, the new supercomputer will enable BASF experts to very efficiently investigate complex questions and it will further shorten the time it takes to launch new products, according to Brudermüller. “We will thus be even better able to meet our customers’ demands for tailor-made innovations based on chemistry,” added Brudermüller.

At the press conference, experts from various fields of application spoke about how digitalisation in R&D works in practice. A key element is the new supercomputer, which will be put into operation this summer in Ludwigshafen.

With 1.75 petaflops, it offers around 10 times the computing power that BASF currently has dedicated to scientific computing. In the ranking of the 500 largest computing systems in the world, the BASF supercomputer is currently number 65.

In an online contest, employees enthusiastically voted to name the supercomputer ‘Quriosity’, which aptly describes its enormous potential to break new ground in product development.

Digital technologies have a rapidly expanding influence on R&D. Managing large quantities of data has become a decisive factor for future scientific and economic success. With BASF’s digital approach, virtual modelling and computer simulation go hand in hand with physical experiments in the lab – they complement each other.

Simulations help with the design of experiments and facilitate forecasting, while experiments deliver measurable results and evaluate the computer models. This results in a better understanding of chemical products and processes, and thus enables greater innovation to be achieved in a shorter period of time.

Digitalisation gives researchers additional opportunities to implement their creative ideas and to collaborate intensively with others around the world. In the view of BASF experts, it is essential to integrate digital technologies directly into the daily work of the R&D units.

Direct access to knowledge-based systems is necessary to enable effective problem-solving and it opens up new horizons. A cloud-based app platform, for example, will make it considerably easier for all researchers to expand knowledge networks.

In recent months, successful projects by BASF researchers have already demonstrated the enormous potential that digitalisation offers in research. For example, researchers were able, for the first time, to conduct a systematic investigation of the data on catalysts used in the production of the intermediate product ethylene oxide.

The investigation found correlations between the formulations and the application properties of the catalysts, which enabled their performance and lifetime to be predicted more accurately and faster.

Digital technologies also played a vital role in the modelling of a new functional polymer for the stable formulation of an active ingredient. From more than 10,000 possibilities, BASF experts were able to work out the appropriate polymer structure.

The subsequent synthesis resulted in the desired formulation polymer, which enabled the creation of a significantly more concentrated emulsion. Modelling like this has now become an established component of the development of formulations.

With ‘data mining’, it is possible to extract useful knowledge from very large quantities of existing data. When it comes to product or process development in the field of biotechnology, for instance, this can include the accelerated identification of promising enzymes or the discovery of suitable bacteria.

BASF aims to maintain its R&D expenditures at the high level of previous years. In 2016, R&D spending amounted to US$2,125 million, slightly below the previous year’s level (US$2,227.2 million) due to structural adjustments in the plant biotechnology activities.

BASF’s research pipeline included around 3,000 projects in 2016, which are being worked on by around 10,000 employees in R&D worldwide. One crucial pillar of the Know-How Verbund remains the global network of cooperative partnerships in many different disciplines with around 600 universities, research institutes and companies.

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