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BASF celebrates the centenary of polymer chemistry in 2020

Back in 1920, German Nobel laureate Hermann Staudinger defined the concept of chain-like “macromolecules,” also known as polymers — or what the common person knows as plastics —one of the central cornerstones of what makes up BASF’s innovative product portfolio. In 1953, Staudinger won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for demonstrating that polymers are indeed long-chain molecules.

“People didn’t really have a way of picturing what polymers were at the molecular level. Staudinger introduced the macromolecular hypothesis and is therefore one of the fathers of polymer chemistry,” said Joshua Speros, Ph.D., Innovation Manager, BASF and himself a polymer scientist.

Staudinger’s work on polymers began with research he conducted for BASF in 1910 on the synthesis of isoprene, the monomer of which natural rubber is composed. BASF is no stranger to polymer chemistry. The chemical company has made significant contributions to this field of science over the past century. Ten years after Staudinger’s paper describing “macromolecular hypothesis,” BASF introduced its first commercial polymer — polystyrene. Since then, the company has also commercialized polyethylene, polyamides, polyacrylates and polyurethanes, to name a few.

“Polymers, which make up a significant part of our product portfolio, are not only essential for the commercial success of our company. Life as we know it on this planet would not be possible without bio-macromolecules such as DNA (our genetic code) or enzymes,” said Sebastian Koltzenburg, Ph.D., Sr. Principal Scientist, Functional Polymers, BASF Germany, “Thus, the discoveries by Staudinger were a breakthrough in many respects, and the world would be a much different place without the development of this unique class of materials.”

BASF has been at the forefront of polymer chemistry from the very start. The company’s first patent for the synthesis of styrene monomer was developed in 1929. Hermann Mark and Carl Wuff succeeded in synthesizing styrene by dehydrogenating ethylbenzene using zinc oxide catalysts. Many other patents followed, with polymer chemistry helping to drive major advancements in areas such as medicine, food safety and construction.

As the number one chemical supplier to the automotive industry, BASF has also successfully used polymers for automotive lightweighting. Over the years, composite plastics have reduced weight and optimized strength, contributing to more than 20% mass savings. As lightweighting has become an increasingly vital consideration for automotive OEMs around the globe, plastics are playing a more critical role in the vehicle manufacturing process than ever before. Additionally, plastics have played a pivotal role in developing more comfortable and practical footwear. BASF innovation led to the creation of Infinergy — the world’s first expanded thermoplastic polyurethane which is a closed-cell, elastic particle foam that combines the properties of TPU with the advantages of foams, making it as elastic as rubber but lighter. The list goes on.

In terms of economics, plastics is one of the largest industries in America, employing 993,000 people directly and 1.5 million indirectly. It is also one of the biggest manufacturing industries in the U.S., generating $451 billion in annual shipments, according to www.thisisplastics.com.

While polymers have improved our quality of life overall, they represent a palpable waste management challenge. “All these polymers we know and use every day — they were wildly successful in doing exactly what they were designed to do. But one thing they weren’t designed to do is go away in a shorter timeframe,” Speros added. “Certainly, consumers are becoming more aware of plastics and polymers in the environment, whether on land or more obviously in our oceans.”

BASF has been addressing these challenges head on with its ChemCycling efforts to ensure that plastics are beneficial even beyond their use phase, as well as being one of the founding members of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. BASF and other plastics value chain companies  are also actively taking steps to decrease their  overall environmental footprint.

As for what the future holds in terms of polymer chemistry, this will include the development of new, environmentally friendly materials that are both bio-based and biodegradable, according to Speros.

“Polymers that are, at least, degradable on a shorter time frame — that’s becoming a pretty hot topic among most polymer scientists in academia,” he said.

As for Koltzenburg, after 100 years of polymer chemistry that helped chemists make molecules “from scratch,” and showed them how to synthesize polymers that “ideally fit a certain application,” he is ready for the next chapter.

“We can move on to the integration of smart materials in complex systems,” he concluded. “We need to collaborate much more closely in an interdisciplinary way with physicists, data scientists, mathematicians and biologists.  This will require a new set of skills from chemists in addition to our traditional knowledge in polymer chemistry.”

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