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BASF: Accelerating Innovation of Formulation Engineering Technology through Digital Technologiesqrcode

Jun. 29, 2020

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Jun. 29, 2020

"The intensified use of digital technologies is one of BASF's guiding principles in strengthening our leading position in chemistry-based innovations. Since the start-up of our supercomputer 'QURIOSITY' (1.25 petaflops) mid 2017 numerous contributions from scientific and data driven modeling and simulation of formerly unthinkable complexity had a strong impact on chemical product development including formulation engineering," said Dr. Lars Wittkowski, Vice President Global Formulation Development & Analytics, BASF Agricultural Solutions in a recent interview with AgroPages.

He also shared his views on challenges and corresponding solutions of formulation engineering technology, some new technologies for formulation engineering, the development of automation control and artificial intelligence in formulation engineering, and some changes in market requirements, regulation & policy and application technologies and countermeasures etc.

Q1. What is the overview of your company’s agrochemical formulation production and major formulation types? Could you highlight the innovation formulation technology and its advantages and application situation?

BASF's Agricultural Solutions division benefits from a global formulation filling and packaging network, covering North & South America, Europe and Asia Pacific. Global formulation grades are typically produced in bigger manufacturing hubs and distributed to the markets via local repackaging facilities. Local-for-local production concepts are often applied when regional or country specific grades are requested from the market and total cost of supply support this approach.

In recent years, volume breakdown by formulation type did not change significantly. The vast majority is still liquid formulation, e.g. soluble concentrates (SL), emulsifiable concentrates (EC), suspension concentrates (SC), while solid formulations contribute less than 20% to the overall volume. 

How does a farmer define a good product? It should be robust, easy to handle, efficient, cost competitive, safe and tailor-made for its specific use. Formulation technology addresses these customer needs and provides innovative solutions. Often, the customers do not see the formulation innovation as such, but they experience the difference in application and performance and ultimately in maximized yield. For example, innovations that reduce off-target movement result in smaller buffer zones, innovations in uptake improve the bioavailability of the active ingredient and innovations in retention and rainfastness reduce the loss rate of the active ingredient. Innovations in formulation technology are of special importance to provide optimized product properties.

Q2. Could you introduce the challenges for formulation engineering technology and corresponding solutions?

When developing formulation technologies, our challenges reflect those of our customers — from changing climatic conditions and regulatory requirements to the targeted and efficient application of plant protection products.

We give farmers clear advice on how to use and take advantage of our top innovations like our Revysol® fungicide products under different and difficult climate conditions. Resilience against climatic stress is a major priority in our research and development. In our laboratories we focus on protecting our products against UV stress, strong rainfall events and adverse drift scenarios. Reducing the photo-degradation of active ingredients will increase the activity level, and consequently lead to a more consistent performance. We have established an approach to select UV blockers via lab simulations and are optimizing formulations in terms of their performance and cost efficiency. Carefully tailored adjuvants and other performance enhancing ingredients increase retention and uptake of active ingredients into the deep layers of the leaf structure and safeguard quick action. At the same time, they help to withstand heavy rain events without loss of activity.

Another frequently encountered challenge involves stabilizing multiple active ingredients (AIs), sometimes up to 4 or 5, in a single product. Often, there are physicochemical incompatibilities between the AIs that need to be overcome, especially when it comes to biological active ingredients, such as endospores, proteins or peptides. The associated challenge is to co-stabilize multiple AIs that belong to completely different classes of active ingredients and develop shelf stable products that are efficacious. BASF’s Poncho® Votivo® 2.0 is one such example. This seed treatment formulation contains a chemical insecticide, two biological endospores as well as an enzyme, and offers an excellent shelf life. The product provides best-in-class protection against insects and nematodes with an added advantage of improved soil health that adds to yield benefits.

To further optimize on target application of plant protection products, BASF has opened a global Agrochemical Application Research Center (AARC) in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, USA, in 2019. The AARC provides a state-of-the-art wind tunnel to test the drift potential from spray applications by measuring the droplet size distribution in each crop protection product. Formulations can be analyzed via spraying them into a controlled air stream using the same nozzles available to growers. Droplet size distribution is important because it is used to determine the size of land buffers that are required for acceptable product application in commercial settings. Research conducted at the facility helps to optimize stewardship guidelines regarding on-target application and to address application buffer zones for BASF crop protection products used worldwide.

Q3. Could you share some new technologies for formulation engineering like Modelling & Simulation, 3D rendering & Virtual reality etc., and their application situations?

The intensified use of digital technologies is one of BASF's guiding principles in strengthening our leading position in chemistry-based innovations. Since the start-up of our supercomputer 'QURIOSITY' (1.25 petaflops) mid 2017 numerous contributions from scientific and data driven modeling and simulation of formerly unthinkable complexity had a strong impact on chemical product development including formulation engineering, for example:

- Quantum chemical modeling of surfactant and polymer mediated interfacial stabilization provide valuable input for the design of formulation compositions to achieve optimized performance in the application.

- Modeling solvency of active ingredients and dispersibility of hydrophobic particles and liquids in water helps to predict new polymer structures with improved formulation performance and was successfully used already in the development of complex formulations.

Q4. Could you talk about the development of automation control and artificial intelligence in formulation engineering?

High throughput technologies including flow chemistry set ups have been successfully used for many years with design-of-experiment (DOE) based screenings for formulation recipe development and application optimization. Modern technologies based on statistical and physical multidimensional methods combined with self-optimizing algorithms ('artificial intelligence') will be applied more and more in chemical product development. They allow accelerated development times and/or achieving performance levels in complex systems in short time. For example, we are using an interactive decision support framework that assists lab researchers in finding optimal product recipes within a few experimental iterations.

Q5. Could you share some changes in your target markets in market requirements, regulation & policy and application technologies? What improvements/adjustments have been made in the formulation development and production to address these changes?

New regulatory requirements are constantly evolving in all our markets, e.g. regarding the biodegradability of products, microplastics or changes in adjuvant policy in Europe. Other regions focus on other aspects or pursue different timelines.

Evolution in regulations and policies is good and vital for progress in sustainable farming. This does not only drive innovation, but also allows us to show our strength in this area. However, in our industry we need a predictable, science-based evolution aligned with our time- and resource consuming product development cycles. It takes more than 10 years to develop a plant protection product and up to 300 studies are performed to ensure highest regulatory standards.   

The development of novel application technologies is progressing fast and will change how plant protection products will be applied in the future. Application may shift in some areas from broadcast to spot, with further advancement down to an individual plant level. The underlying technologies will have an impact on the formulation properties, e.g. their viscosity, concentration or mixing compatibility as well as on the kind of chemistry that can be applied.

Now, it is key to understand and apply these new requirements to our future products, to be able to offer innovative products to the market. It will take some more years before these technologies take substantial market share, but change will happen, and we prepare for it now.

This interview was initially published in AgroPages '2020 Formulation & Adjuvant Technology' magazine. Download it to read more articles.

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