Go With the Flow: New Partnership Aims to Revolutionise UK Chemical Production
Centre for Rapid Online Analysis of Reactions (ROAR) in the Molecular Sciences Research Hub, Imperial’s new home for chemistry research in London’s White City | Credit: Thomas Angus, Imperial College London
Chemicals are essential for modern life. However, traditional ways of producing chemicals use a large amount of energy and generate CO2 emissions. PoliticsHome sat down with Darren Budd from BASF to learn how a major new partnership with Imperial College London is set to bring benefits to businesses, consumers, and the nation as a whole.
For many of us, knowledge of how chemicals are produced is something that brings back hazy memories of our school days. But even if the process sometimes feels like a mystery, the contribution of chemicals on modern life is very real indeed.
Chemicals are an essential part of all of our lives. The medicines we take, the batteries that power our cars, and even the clothes that we wear, are often only made possible thanks to the innovation of chemical businesses.
“Chemistry is a lifeblood,” Darren Budd, Commercial Director BASF UK & Ireland tells PoliticsHome. “You don't see it, but everything you use from the minute you get up in the morning to the minute you go to bed, will have been shaped by the chemicals that businesses like BASF manufacture.”
That unique significance of chemicals means that finding new ways to make them more efficiently, and increasing our resilience by supporting more domestic manufacturing, is essential to the future economy and welfare of the UK.
One business that has been at the centre of driving forward innovation for the last 150 years is BASF. The chemicals it makes have provided the building blocks for everything from the clothes we wear to the medicines that keep us healthy. As we move forward, they will also be essential for the net zero transition, underpinning the production of wind turbines, EV batteries, and hydrogen electrolysers.
But making the chemicals we need is not easy. Materials need to be sourced and imported from around the globe, and the process remains too intensive in terms of fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions.
Now, BASF is drawing upon its history of innovation to change the way that chemicals are produced, delivering benefits to British businesses, consumers, and the wider environment. A major new partnership called IConIC has been launched with world-leading researchers at Imperial College London that promises to revolutionise the way that chemicals are manufactured.
Budd explains that the new process will ultimately deliver the chemicals we rely upon in a way that is more efficient and more sustainable.
“We're trying to make the high-purity chemicals we need for our agrochemicals systems and for pharmaceuticals with less waste,” he explains. “With traditional systems, you use a lot of raw materials and high volumes of energy. If we are to meet our net zero ambitions, we need to think of new and improved ways of manufacturing chemicals. That is what the IConIC partnership intends to address.”
The new partnership is focused on continuous production methods instead of making chemicals in individual batches. This is known as “flow chemistry.” In simple terms, it means that the high-purity chemicals we need can be produced quickly, sustainably, and affordably. The innovative process also unlocks the potential to produce chemicals in smaller quantities as and when they are needed but with the efficiency usually found only in large scale manufacturing.
The other major benefit of the approach is that it improves the resilience of UK industries, opening up the possibility of manufacturing more chemicals on our shores to complement highly integrated and complex global supply chains.
For Budd, that improved resilience is critical for UK businesses and consumers. He describes how recent disruption demonstrated the necessity for more secure sources of chemicals to support the nation.
“If we go back three years to COVID, we saw a big issue getting raw materials to make the products that we need,” he tells us. “The whole supply chain was interrupted. With these continuous reactors, we will actually be able to make the chemicals we need, where and when we need them.”
Not only does that increase national resilience in the face of an increasingly uncertain world, but it also reduces the energy and resource footprint that is often associated with the chemical industry.
“This process needs fewer starting materials to create the chemicals you need. That means less waste,” Budd tells PoliticsHome. “And with the right business investment environment, this technology can help unlock local manufacturing opportunities. If you need agrochemicals, you are not saying ‘We’ve got to manufacture it on the other side of the globe’. We can do it right here.”
Ultimately, that benefits UK businesses by providing more options to source the chemicals they need. It also helps support a wider ecosystem and a UK chemical industry that employs over 141,000 people and generates almost £31 billion in added value to the economy each year.
Budd is excited about the way that the IConIC partnership will not only support established industry leaders like BASF but also the emerging innovators in the sector who are developing the products of tomorrow.
“The partnership is all about creating an ecosystem that creates jobs, attracts investment, and supports innovation,” he tells us. “Over the next five years, we will be bringing startup companies into the partnership to learn about the technology and to develop that technology into commercialisation.”
Budd sees that ecosystem as being built on a collaboration that includes a wide range of partners, legislators, regulators, industry, and academia. Each party has a critical role to play. But what Budd believes is critical is that there is a clear, shared understanding of what they are collectively striving to achieve.
“Basically, we want to make people’s lives easier,” Budd concludes. “We want to help them get the products they need at a price that is affordable.”
For such a complex industry and process, it is a very straightforward aspiration.
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