Interview Dr. Thomas Bott

Dr. Thomas Bott, head of the Polymer Technology Unit of the Polymer Research organization at BASF, and member of the Strategic Advisory Board of EUROPIC:

How large is the total R&D effort (financial and human resources) in your company?
TB: In 2012 BASF`s R&D expenditures were 1.75 billion Euro globally – around 9% more compared to 2011. More than 10,500 BASF employees work in research and development.

What part of the R&D effort is devoted to processes in comparison to products?
TB: Product and process development are closely connected. Looking at the paradigm change in chemistry from molecules to system solutions we take an increasingly holistic view at both, process and product development. Beside product research a significant part of BASF`s R&D effort is devoted to incremental as well as step-change process research.

Can you give your personal definition of Process Intensification?
TB: Process intensification is a radical improvement of the efficiency of manufacturing processes and production plants in the chemical industry. In many cases process intensification is related to a reduction of process steps leading to reduced side products and increased resource efficiency. Furthermore, process intensification targets to push process limitations in order to give access to new operating conditions and/or new synthesis and process routes. Thus, process intensification can give access to novel products, which cannot be produced by conventional processes and can help to develop more sustainable processes.

How large R&D effort in your company (financial and human resources) is devoted to Process Intensification? Could you say that PI represents an important element of your strategy?
TB: Process intensification plays an important role in our process research strategy. Our smart scale initiative focusses on production of specialty products in a flexible, continuous process with new type of equipment such as milli- or micro-structured reactors. The change from batch or semi-batch processes to continuous processes is one key element of our process intensification strategy. Furthermore, BASF is engaged in current publicly funded projects like “F3-Factory” or the Dechema initiative “50%-idea”.

Does your group perform a permanent scientific technology scouting in the field of PI?
TB: Technology scouting is an important part of our work. We actively exchange our knowledge with the scientific community by studying and publishing papers, visiting conferences and collaborating intensively with research institutes and universities. Making manufacturing processes more sustainable is a key element in the scouting activities and process intensification is part of it.

Could you precise what is exactly expected from Process Intensification in the R&D strategy of your company? What are the major expected outcomes?
TB: Process intensification aims to simultaneously improve economic and ecological aspects of chemical production. Reduction of production costs by integration of various process steps in one single step or reduction of energy consumption or emissions by avoidance of solvents in the reaction process are strong expectations. Thus, process intensification is a vehicle to make manufacturing processes more sustainable. Another expectation is to get more flexible plants, which can be built following a modular plant concept. Finally, we hope to push the current limitations in synthesis and process technology, thus giving access to more economic processes and new products. Essential for successful process intensification is the holistic view on a process from sourcing of raw materials across integrated process steps up to alternative reaction routes.

Do you have any example of successful implementation of PI technologies or methodologies in your company? Which types of implementations?
TB: The combination of different unit operations in one single step – e.g. reactive distillation or distillation in double wall columns – are examples of process intensification which are used at BASF since many years. Other examples are utilization of micro mixing devices or micro heat exchangers, which can be found in various BASF installations. These existing examples predominantly target on incremental improvements of conventional processes.

Could you specify the nature of the benefits obtained?
TB: In general, the obtained benefit is a better competitive position of our manufacturing technologies. In many cases process intensification measures led to lower investment cost for new production plants and/or savings in energy consumptions. In some cases we also achieved better product quality or less by-products.

Could you say that PI plays yet a significant or satisfying role in the current development of your company?
TB: So far, process intensification has shown good benefits for the company and environment and is widely accepted. The full potential of process intensification is still not realized comprehensively.

To your opinion, what are the major barriers to PI implementation in your company considering the whole aspects (technological, economical, educational, psychological, etc)?
TB: Traditional process concepts are usually well proven and can be implemented without technological risks. Radical changes in process technologies are not proven over many years; a thorough analysis of technological risks is therefore the first step. But they have the potential to fit much better to the challenging environment in the future.

What kind of actions do you plan in order to facilitate within the next 3-years the PI development in your company?
TB: We will put even more effort on implementation of process intensification in our production plants. Within our corporate funded research activities we have developed new ideas which now have to be transferred to real applications. We regularly share the success stories with proven benefits in the BASF communities. Good communication of success stories is one key for full acceptance of the more radical approach of process intensification.

What should be now added or improved in EUROPIC’s approach?
TB: EUROPIC is predominantly driven by a limited number of chemical companies. But this is not enough. In many cases, process intensification needs special equipment and technical solutions which are not yet established in the market. Therefore, we need a more interdisciplinary approach including equipment manufacturers and system providers as well. Furthermore, examples of realized process intensification successes not limited to chemical industry are highly welcome. Last but not least, we need more focus on process intensification in education at the universities.