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BASF targets sustainable products in R&D

The German major is reorienting its research toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions, lowering resource use, and supporting the circular economy

by Alex Scott
December 6, 2023


A herbicide sprayer in a green field.
Credit: BASF
BASF has unveiled a series of technologies that it says are sustainable, including a software-based system that only sprays herbicide where and when it is needed.

Sustainability has become the primary driver behind BASF’s more than $2 billion annual investment in R&D, according to Melanie Maas-Brunner, a BASF board member and the firm’s chief technology officer. To that end, the company says it is focused on developing products and processes that promote the efficient use of resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and support the circular economy.

BASF used a recent press briefing to unveil a raft of developmental technologies that it claims are sustainable, including a fermentation process for making the world’s first probiotic containing bacteria found on human skin, self-learning software for precision herbicide spraying, and an isocyanate that enhances the durability of roads and cuts the energy required to make asphalt.

Of the more than 1,000 patents the company filed in 2022, about 40% were related to sustainability and 20% were associated with digitalization. “I’m sure if I gave you the figures two, three years from now, they would have grown,” Maas-Brunner said.

BASF spent about $2.5 billion on R&D in 2022 and will spend in excess of $2.2 billion in 2023 and 2024, according to Maas-Brunner. BASF’s plan to maintain a high level of R&D spending comes at a time of financial turmoil for the company, which has announced substantial job cuts as part of a plan to slash costs by more than $750 million annually.

Access to renewable energy and green hydrogen is key to BASF’s ability to make its processes greener, Maas-Brunner said. BASF recently secured $134 million from regional and national governments for a water electrolysis facility in Ludwigshafen, Germany. The facility is scheduled to produce up to 8,000 metric tons (t) per year of green hydrogen starting in 2025. This project notwithstanding, government policies in Europe are generally restrictive, whereas countries such as China and the US emphasize incentives, Maas-Brunner said.

BASF’s goal is to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050. A recent study by the consulting firm Accenture concludes that most leading chemical companies are behind in their transition to low- or zero-carbon technologies. BASF is on target, Maas-Brunner said, although to meet its 2050 goal, the firm will need more renewable energy production, the construction of hydrogen pipelines and other infrastructure, and the acceptance of technologies such as carbon capture and storage, she said.

In the past year, BASF has established about 400 research agreements with academic partners. An earlier collaboration with RWTH Aachen University in Germany resulted in B2Last, an additive that is said to reduce the amount of energy required to make asphalt while enhancing the durability of the paving material.

The additive is based on an isocyanate that reacts with asphalt to form a crosslinker that improves asphalt’s elastic properties. BASF has tested the technology on a number of roads, including some within its Ludwigshafen complex. “So far it works really well,” said Dag Wiebelhaus, head of global product innovation for monomers at BASF.

Some environmentalists question whether products like the asphalt additive are truly sustainable. “It sounds like a decent solution, but it is not circular, seems not very sustainable, and it is worth mentioning that isocyanates is a family of substances where many have hazardous properties,” says Jonatan Kleimark, senior chemicals and business advisor for ChemSec, a Swedish environmental organization. “Sustainability is not only about climate and reducing carbon emissions,” he says.

Another technology that BASF showcased is Probiolift, which it calls the first cosmetic active ingredient containing living bacteria found on human skin. BASF manufactures the bacteria, Lactobacillus crispatus, using a fermentation process that requires little energy, said Torsten Clarius, senior business development manager for BASF’s cosmetic active ingredients unit.

In a 56-day test, a formula containing 0.5% Probiolift enhanced the production of collagen in human skin enough to markedly reduce the presence of wrinkles, Clarius said. The residue left over after fermentation can be used in other cosmetics, making the process highly efficient, he added.

Maas-Brunner warned, however, that greener products will cost more. “CO2-neutral products will be more expensive because fossil raw materials and fossil fuels can no longer be used. But we also understand that our customers are starting to pay different prices for products like these,” she said. Customers such as Henkel, which has agreed to purchase 110,000 t per year of fossil-free ingredients from BASF, “understand the value of low-CO2 products,” she said.



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