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Digitalization Drives Development

July 14, 2017
German firms BASF and Evonik are funding technologies that further advance R&D efforts.

As part of its strategy to push digitalization in research activities, shortly BASF will start using the new supercomputer at its Ludwigshafen, Germany, headquarters. BASF describes the 1.75-petaflop device, dubbed Quriosity by staff, as the 65th most powerful supercomputer in the world. It will allow the company to increase by ten-fold its scientific computing power.


Speaking at BASF’s annual research press conference in Ludwigshafen on June 29, Martin Brudermüller, vice chairman of the board of executive directors and chief technology officer, said that the company’s strategic goal is to take advantage of the enormous opportunities that digitalization offers along the entire value chain.

“In doing so, R&D plays a key role when it comes to further increasing innovative strength and competitiveness by using new technologies. 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,” he added.

Figure 1. Digitalization will help BASF researchers to improve their simulations, for example of the microencapsulation technologies used to protect active ingredients in pharmaceutical agents. Source: BASF.

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, Brudermüller noted, virtual modeling 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.

Digitalization also 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’s 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 also opens up new horizons. A cloud-based app platform, for example, will make it considerably easier for all researchers to expand knowledge networks, they believe.

BASF researchers have already shown the enormous potential that digitalization offers in research.

In recent months, they were able for the first time to conduct a systematic investigation of the data on catalysts used in producing the intermediate product ethylene oxide. The investigation found correlations between the formulations and the application properties of the catalysts that enabled their performance and lifetime to be predicted faster and more accurately.

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In another project, digital technologies played a vital role in modeling 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 creating a significantly more concentrated emulsion. Modeling like this has now become an established component for developing formulations.

The conference also heard that BASF aims to maintain its R&D at the level of previous years: in 2016 this amounted to €1.8 billion ($2.1 billion).

Meanwhile, a second German company, Evonik, Essen, has followed up January’s formation of the Evonik Digital subsidiary with a €100-million ($114-million) allocation for digitalization. The company also is entering into a strategic partnership with IBM and the University of Duisburg-Essen aimed at forging ahead with the digital change in the chemical industry.

“For us as a specialty chemicals company, digitalization brings with it a world of possibilities. Now it’s about identifying them, testing them out, and being able to put them to good use,” said Christian Kullmann, chairman of the executive board of Evonik Industries.

The partnership with IBM will see Evonik benefit from the latest technologies and innovative projects IBM is spearheading, such as cognitive and cloud-based technologies and the Internet of Things. The partnership also allows Evonik to tap into IBM’s R&D technological breakthroughs such as quantum computing.

The first pilot project began in July with Evonik and IBM co-developing a cognitive Evonik-specific chemical and life science knowledge corpus based on data analyzed by IBM Watson Explorer and Watson Knowledge Studio. (Watson Explorer is IBM’s cognitive search and content analysis platform; Watson Knowledge Studio is the company’s cloud-based app that enables developers to identify relationships in unstructured data.)

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can email him at [email protected].

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