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Annual R&D Review: Nanotechnology - balancing risks with great opportunities

BASF Aktiengesellschaft : 27 May, 2014  (Company News)
Andy Pye flew into Frankfurt - just! - to cover the annual BASF R&D Press Conference in Ludwigshafen, which focuses this year on nanotechnology.
BASF marginally increased spending on research and development to EUR1.8 billion in 2013. “In absolute terms, we lead the field in the chemical industry with our research and development expenditures,” said Dr Andreas Kreimeyer, member of the Board of Executive Directors of BASF SE and Research Executive Director. By 2020, 50% of its research activities are planned to be conducted outside Europe. 
BASF has founded the “California Research Alliance by BASF” (CARA) in California. Here, the main research focus is on the biosciences and new inorganic materials for the areas energy, electronics and renewable resources. In Asia, the company has joined forces with top-ranking universities from China, Japan and Korea to found the research initiative ”Network for Advanced Materials Open Research” (NAO). In this joint project, research is underway on materials for a wide range of applications, including products for the automotive, construction and water industries and for the wind energy sector.
Nanotechnology - the development, manufacture and use of materials that have structures, particles, fibres or platelets smaller than 100nm and so possess novel properties - promises to yield many innovations in automotive technology, energy, electronics, construction and medicine which would not otherwise be possible. 
High-performance insulation materials
Nanopores provide the specific material characteristics in one of BASF’s new high-performance insulation material. Slentite is the first high-performance insulation panel based on polyurethane, which needs only half the space compared to traditional materials while offering the same insulation performance. Up to 90% of the volume of the organic aerogel consists of air-filled pores which have a diameter of only 50 to 100nm. As a result, the air molecules’ freedom of movement is limited and the transfer of heat is reduced. The high-performance insulation material can be used, for example, in the construction sector for old and new buildings.
One BASF research field in which nanotechnology plays a key role focuses on the development of formulations of active components, especially on microencapsulation. Active substances are thereby enclosed with a wax, polymer or oil-based protective shell. This enables the actives to be used more specifically for the application concerned and function more effectively. The important factor here is the controlled release of the actives. Researchers at BASF have succeeded in designing the shell according to the application need, making it only a few nanometers thick or nanostructured. This allows control of the time and speed at which the active substances can be released at the desired target location.
A material that could contribute to the key technological progress of Organic Light Emitting Diodes (OLEDs), displays and even batteries and catalysts is graphene. An international team of researchers is currently exploring the scientific basis and application potential of innovative carbon-based materials like graphene at the joint research and development platform of BASF and the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, Germany.
Colour filters
BASF’s new red colour, Irgaphor Red S 3621 CF, ensures an excellent image quality of liquid crystal displays (LCD). It is used in colour filters for notebook, computer and television screens. The smaller the particles are, the more intense the brightness of screens becomes. BASF has succeeded in manufacturing its product with a particle size of less than 40nm. The tiny particles enable considerably less scattering of light in the colour filter. Compared to traditional colour products, BASF’s new red doubles the contrast ratio of displays. This leads to a sharp, pure-coloured, high-contrast and thus brilliant image.
Safety issues with nanotechnology
Accessing new technologies requires an objective assessment of both the opportunities and risks. In addition to the manufacture and development of nanomaterials, another research priority is the risk assessment of nanoparticles. For about ten years, BASF has therefore been pursuing safety research with nanomaterials. During this time the company has conducted more than 150 of its own toxicology and ecotoxicology studies and participated in approximately 30 different projects with external partners.
Innovation-friendly social and political conditions are decisive in allowing the potentials of nanotechnology to be utilized, says Kreimeyer: “Public discussion is very important for us. We actively seek dialog, also with critical opinion leaders. For example, BASF has – as the first and so far only company in Germany – established a regularly held dialog forum focusing on nanotechnology. At these events, BASF employees conduct discussions with various representatives of environmental and consumer organizations, labour unions, scientific institutions and churches to improve understanding of current concerns, explain opportunities, answer questions and jointly identify constructive solutions.
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