Research and Development
WACKER’s research and development (R&D) activities pursue three goals:
Research and Development at Two Levels
WACKER conducts R&D at two levels: centrally at our Corporate R&D department and locally at our business divisions, where the focus is on specific applications. Corporate R&D coordinates activities on a company-wide basis and involves other departments. We use Project System Innovation (PSI) software to steer the Group’s product and process innovations by systematically evaluating customer benefit, sales potential, profitability and technology position.
The development of products and production methods accounts for a large part of our R&D costs. With our New Solutions initiative, we combine our company-wide expertise and apply it across interfaces as needed.
Collaboration with Customers and Research Institutes
We collaborate with customers, scientific institutes and universities to achieve research successes more quickly and efficiently. These partnerships cover topics such as electricity storage, construction applications, and process simulation and development.
Back in 2006, Wacker Chemie AG joined forces with the Technical University of Munich (TUM) to establish the WACKER Institute of Silicon Chemistry, located on TUM’s Garching research campus near Munich, and has funded the institute ever since. One focus of our collaboration is the chemistry of low-valence silicon and germanium for use in industrial applications (such as catalysis and synthesis).
Our WACKER ACADEMY locations serve as a platform for sharing industry-specific knowledge between customers, distributors and WACKER experts. The focus here is on providing training tailored to specific industries, such as the cosmetics, construction and paints sectors, for applications in our WACKER BIOSOLUTIONS, WACKER SILICONES and WACKER POLYMERS business divisions. The training centers’ proximity to our development and test laboratories promotes the sharing of ideas and enables participants to conduct practical on-site tests. We ensure our seminars remain state of the art through our work with our own internal application technology and research facilities, as well as with universities and institutes.
Some of our research projects are subsidized by government grants. In the reporting period, these projects were focused on process-specific topics, electromobility and lightweight construction. Here are a few examples:
- As part of the Kopernikus project P2X, we are investigating technologies to convert electricity from renewable sources into other forms of energy, such as chemicals, plastics, fuels, gases and heat.
- In the SisAl Pilot project (in the video), we are conducting research into sustainable silicon production alternatives in order to lower the carbon footprint of the process and thus contribute to a circular economy.
- With the BioBall-SynBioTech project (website in German only), we are developing biotechnological and chemical processes to convert biogenic CO2 into methanol. This can be transformed into biomass by fermentation and then used as animal feed or processed further into chemicals.
Our R&D Workforce
In 2020, the Group had 752 R&D staff (2019: 766), accounting for 5.3 percent of the workforce (2019: 5.2 percent). Of these, 590 were employed at R&D units in Germany and 162 elsewhere.
Alexander Wacker Innovation Award
We also present awards to honor the work of our employees. The Alexander Wacker Innovation Award, a €10,000 prize bestowed since 2006, is presented at the annual WACKER Innovation Days research symposium; the 2020 award was presented at an online event. The recipients of the 2020 award were SeungA Lee and JungEun Lee from WACKER’s Center of Electronics Excellence in Seoul, South Korea, who had developed silicone resins for optical-bonding applications. Their work enables the creation of customized solutions for the burgeoning market in high-quality non-reflective displays. In optical bonding, silicone gels bond the thin cover glass with the electronic layers beneath. Non-reflectivity is achieved by filling the gap with a gel, displacing air in the process.
In 2020, for the first time ever, WACKER also presented a Lifetime Achievement version of this award to recognize outstanding performance during an individual’s career. This award went to an Indian researcher, Amit Paul of Wacker Metroark Chemicals in Kolkata, who succeeded in developing water-free mixtures of silane oligomers and surfactants for treating cement compounds – the resulting hydrophobic cement gives concrete and mortar compounds water-repellent properties. One of his other achievements was to develop a silicone fluid emulsion of low particle size, which is now used in hair-care products and in high-performance additives for cosmetics, varnish formulations and crop protection.
In 2019, Rachela Mohr and Dr. Helmut Reuscher received the award for developing CAVACURMIN®. This dietary supplement contains the turmeric extract curcumin, which exhibits anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. As it is not water-soluble, curcumin is not readily absorbed in the human bloodstream. It can be used by the body much more easily when encapsulated within the ring-shaped sugar molecules of cyclodextrins.
Corporate R&D Research Projects
Our corporate R&D work is focused on projects to advance sustainability, such as the circular economy and renewable resources.
We are conducting research into the use of sustainable methods to continuously reduce the carbon footprint of our products and production methods. We are working to develop biodegradable polymer components made from CO2 for use in our silicone products and for vinyl acetate-ethylene (VAE) copolymers. In these areas, Corporate R&D is collaborating very closely with WACKER SILICONES and WACKER POLYMERS.
The catalysts required for crosslinking silicones contain precious metals like platinum. These not only make the manufacturing process expensive, but also remain present in the silicone. In the reporting period, researchers at the WACKER Institute of Silicon Chemistry and from across the WACKER Group successfully cured silicone rubber compounds without resorting to precious-metal catalysts. Rather than working with standard crosslinkers, they instead used silicone building blocks containing silirane units. The silicone elastomers produced in this way display exceptional purity and contain neither volatile substances nor traces of precious metals.
International partners are testing our highly innovative silicon-based anode materials for suitability in such applications as consumer electronics and batteries to propel electric vehicles. In collaboration with researchers at our British associate Nexeon Ltd., we are stepping up work on silicon-based materials for high-performance batteries.
A further focus of our research is on biotechnology processes and bioengineered products. Our third-generation ESETEC® strains have enabled us, for the first time, to selectively trigger the release of correctly folded pharmaceutical proteins from a bacterial cell. We are developing just such a process for the production of nucleic acids – an important class of biopharmaceuticals.
We are using our biotechnological production platforms to develop new manufacturing processes for functional additives to supply the fast-growing market for alternative, non-animal food proteins. Our modern systems biology has made possible the sustainable, cost-effective manufacture of the amino acid L-cysteine. Taking that as our basis, we are working with partners to develop fermentation methods to make naturally occurring compounds containing sulfur for use as food and food additives.
Business-Division Research Projects
WACKER SILICONES Invests in Energy Efficiency
Sustainability in general and biodegradability in particular continue to grow in importance. Our researchers at Burghausen are working on silicone systems that feature materials or organic components that are biodegradable.
At our Shanghai technical center, WACKER SILICONES is researching thermal interface materials, especially those for the electronics industry. In 2020, one point of focus at the Burghausen technical center was on fiber composites for thermally stable refractory components. Made from carbon or glass fibers and silicone resins, these are used in lightweight construction.
We are continuing our research into UV-activated silicones, whose use is more energy-efficient than thermal curing. At our research site in Ann Arbor, Michigan (USA), we are working on silicone systems for the selective release of active ingredients in wound care.
We are using molecule simulations and big-data analyses to digitize our research activities. We employ innovation methods like Design Thinking in interdisciplinary High Innovation ImpacT (“HIT”) teams to assess whether our development projects can be implemented and marketed. In 2020, the HIT teams concentrated on hygiene and the pandemic.
WACKER POLYMERS: Focus on Low-Emission Products and Renewable Raw Materials
At WACKER POLYMERS, research remains centered on sustainable functional polymer binders for use in consumer goods and the construction industry. We are continuously improving products that are free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and that enable the use of sustainable formulation components in a wide variety of materials.
WACKER POLYMERS continues to focus on renewable raw materials and functional polymer additives for manufacturing biodegradable materials. In the reporting period, we launched functionalized polymer dispersions, dispersible polymer powders and polymer resins, which our customers use to manufacture enhanced dispersion paints and high-performance composite materials. We introduced sustainable binders for adhesives and for cementitious building materials.
We are supporting the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in building up an innovation platform for sustainable construction. Called “ChangeLab! WACKER/KIT Innovation Platform for Pioneering Sustainable Construction,” this joint project is aimed both at KIT students and at architects, engineers and construction experts. We want to forge stronger ties between research work and the construction sector’s supply-chain stages by fostering the exchange of ideas and conceptual approaches in the fields of materials development and sustainable construction.
WACKER BIOSOLUTIONS: Expertise in Biotechnology and Microbiology
At WACKER BIOSOLUTIONS, research remains geared to strengthening the division’s expertise in biotechnology and microbiology. We are continuously updating and improving our fermentation processes for the manufacture of high-quality biobased and natural ingredients for food and dietary supplements.
The ESETEC® microbial production platform, which we are constantly evolving, allows our pharmaceutical customers to manufacture active proteins that are not easily accessible. In the reporting period, we developed manufacturing processes for live bacteria that our customers use as pharmaceutical actives. We are developing applications for our versatile cyclodextrins in the food, agriculture and pharmaceutical industries.
WACKER POLYSILICON: Huge Progress in Solar-Cell Efficiencies
In the field of solar modules, huge technological progress is being made at every stage of the supply chain, and this trend is reflected in continually rising cell efficiencies. The highest cell efficiencies are attainable only with the kind of hyperpure polycrystalline silicon that WACKER POLYSILICON produces. Reference studies such as the International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaics (ITRPV) show efficiencies that now exceed 22 percent for monocrystalline solar cells produced with PERC (passivated emitter rear cell) technology. Efficiency is a measure of how much of the radiant energy absorbed by a solar cell is transformed into electricity. High-efficiency monocrystalline cells (such as heterojunction or interdigitated back contact solar cells) achieve efficiencies of 23 to 25 percent. High-performance segments like these require WACKER-quality polysilicon.
In the reporting period, we joined the Ultra Low-Carbon Solar Alliance (ULCSA). The international members of this US-based organization are committed to the deployment of photovoltaic components with a low carbon footprint.