When the chemistry is right
A long-term relationship with innovation

From channeling daylight to running a supercomputer or using Artificial Intelligence to perfect molecules, BASF is anything but short of innovation. The German giant engages in various innovation projects and teams up with universities or technology disruptors like the 3D printing pioneers Impossible Objects to make sure it’s always ahead of its time. We introduce a few examples of how the company has embraced and incorporated new technologies.

BASF has announced its membership in Systems That Learn (STL), a research initiative that is part of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at a North American Center for Research on Advanced Materials (NORA) conference in early 2019. The collaboration focuses on matching new colorways to customers’ demands for car coatings - a so far time consuming and an especially skilled-labor intensive task. BASF developed an advanced color matching system which applies artificial intelligence using neural networks to the process of color matching paint. This doesn’t only lead to more efficiency in the development process, but also gives more room for personalization and quick responses to demands or trends.

The aim of a collaboration between BASF and TU Berlin, the Joint Lab for Machine Learning (BASLEARN), is to develop workable new mathematical models and algorithms for fundamental questions relating to chemistry, for example, from process or quantum chemistry. Machine learning is a key pillar of artificial intelligence. With machine learning, large volumes of data are analyzed to recognize patterns and relationships which can be used to develop prediction models that optimize themselves based on their results. Systems for language recognition or autonomous driving are examples of how machine learning is used in day-to-day applications. “Ultimately, the mathematical models in these everyday examples are similar to those needed in a digitalized laboratory,” explains Dr. Hergen Schultze, head of BASF’s research group “Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.”

Computer with superpowers and scaling 3D printing for small-scale production

BASF also runs supercomputer Quriosity. The company states: “To calculate the most promising polymer structure from thousands of possibilities, you need a high-performance computer with above-average computing power – just like our Quriosity.” Installing the supercomputer in Ludwigshafen involved reinforcing the floor in the server room, laying more than 1,000 network cables with a total length of 15 km as well as adding a separate water-cooling system, which can cool the supercomputer with 60,000 liters of water per hour. At full capacity, the supercomputer has an electricity consumption of roughly 600 kilowatts, generating significant waste heat in the process. In return, Quriosity offers around 10 times the overall computing power previously available to BASF researchers.

Developing a wider range of materials with a broader set of properties at affordable prices, is a top priority for 3D printing venture Impossible Objects. Kara Noack, North America Business Director for BASF 3D Printing Solutions, emphasizes in an interview with Forbes: “Final users are dissatisfied with the palette of materials available.” She adds that manufacturing companies need a much broader range of materials to meet their very diverse needs. BASF set up BASF 3D Printing Solutions to better face the challenges of advanced manufacturing.

The company strives to help the technology scale and is investing to add both manufacturing capabilities and supply-chain capabilities to be able to produce and supply large quantities of 3D printing materials. This shows an interesting juxtaposition: 3D printing makes it possible to reach economic efficiency with smaller-scale production—a comparative advantage for smaller manufacturers. But to enable this, you need 3D printing materials to be supplied in large quantities at affordable prices—which requires the large scale of a company like BASF.

Let the sunshine in - Skynative brings daylight 20 floors deep

As one of its less abstract projects, BASF has introduced solutions like Skynative. The technology makes daylight available up to 20 metres deep into buildings. It channels daylight through the building facade to ceiling “luminaires” that can reach rooms on any building floor, including the basement. This is not only a sustainable way of illuminating rooms, the natural source of light also boosts physical and mental health as well as the overall wellbeing. BASF is currently testing a hybrid system that combines daylight with advanced LED lighting. The hybrid luminaire is steered by a sensor system so that the LED lighting fades in and out as needed and according to user preferences.

All these achievements and efforts have already resulted in measurable returns (get in touch with us if you want to know more) for BASF. If you look at some numbers that underline the commitment to not only adopt new technologies, but to shape and pioneer them, this doesn’t come as a surprise: about 11.000 employees work in Research & Development (R&D) alone and contribute to 3.000 projects at 70 R&D sites worldwide. In 2018 alone, BASF has gained 900 new patents. Further research projects aim to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems like clean water supply or climate protection. So BASF remains one of the companies to watch when it comes to applied innovation.