"Chemistry is Not the Problem – It Is the Solution"

  Woman with a hard hat smiling at the camera Copyright: © BASF SE

At school, Melanie Maas-Brunner was on fire for chemistry. Later, as a chemist, she had her fingers burned. Literally – one day in the lab, the crucible was still so hot, it would leave its traces on her thumb for weeks to come. It's a brief story from her chemistry studies at RWTH, but it didn't stop the young woman from Korschenbroich. Quite the opposite, in fact: in the 30 years since injuring her thumb during an experiment in the University's lab, she has left a deep mark on the chemical industry. According to German journal Manager Magazin, she is now "the super minister" of one of the world's largest chemical companies, BASF SE, with its headquarters and plant in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany. She is the site manager as well as Labor Director and Chief Technology Officer, and thus a member of the Board of Executive Directors of the long-established company, which has more than 111,000 employees around the world.

In recognition of her tireless efforts to make the industry more sustainable through innovation and intensive action, Dr. Melanie Maas-Brunner shall be presented with the Aachen Engineering Award on Saturday, September 2, 2023, in a ceremony hosted by RWTH and the city of Aachen at Coronation Hall of Aachen City Hall. This is the ninth time that this award has been presented with the kind support of the Association of German Engineers (vdi). “Dr. Melanie Maas-Brunner is a recognized chemist with outstanding management skills. She is always striving for innovations that find their way into actual operations. In her thinking and actions, she resembles an engineer with an eye for technical potential. She was chosen to receive the 2023 Aachen Engineering Award because she has been instrumental in accelerating research and implementing its findings in new and, at the same time, sustainable production processes, products, and business models,” said Professor Ulrich Rüdiger, Rector of RWTH Aachen University, explaining the decision.

Tiled Rooms, Dedicated Students

Melanie Maas-Brunner's enthusiasm for chemistry began early. She has fond memories of her small high school chemistry class and a very good chemistry teacher. The experiments in the school lab then sparked her enthusiasm for studying chemistry. She looked into studying the subject in Aachen and found tiled rooms in the labs and dedicated students and highly motivated instructors. "I felt an extremely positive vibe," she recalls. She naturally enrolled at the University, beginning with inorganic chemistry before going further down the path to technical chemistry. She wanted to think about solutions on a larger scale – the test tube was a good start, but from the small laboratory, the young scientist wanted to transfer her research into larger applications, into solutions that would eventually reach industry. The step from research into this very industry was then above all consistent and logical.

After obtaining her doctorate in 1995 and working as a researcher in Aachen and at the University of Ottawa in Canada, she joined BASF Aktiengesellschaft in Ludwigshafen in 1997 as a Research Scientist in the Chemical Research and Engineering Department. In 2001, she became Plant Manager Business Unit Plasticizers and Solvents and part of the Board of Executive Directors. Two years later, she became Vice President, Global Strategy, Product and New Business Development for Dispersions and Paper Chemicals. She then worked at BASF East Asia Regional Headquarters Ltd, Hong Kong, from 2008 to 2012, before returning to Germany as Senior Vice President (first for Engineering Plastics Europe, then for Performance Materials Europe) and became President Nutrition & Health at the Lampertheim site in 2017. Now, as a member of the company's Board of Executive Directors, she is looking for solutions that have long since expanded from the laboratory scale.

The world has changed in the 26 years Maas-Brunner has been at BASF and recently, these changes have taken a breathtaking pace. For a chemical company like BASF, this has consequences. As in many other industries, many processes are facing digitalization and artificial intelligence (AI) must be carefully incorporated into the company's own processes. Nowadays, innovations are tailored to customer needs. White biotechnology, i.e. using organisms or their components as the basis for industrial production, established itself as an indispensable technology.

Solutions for the Major Challenges

Maas-Brunner is passionate about the future of a huge company, a "colossus," as Manager Magazin writes, and if you look closely and listen to her, it is clear that a key concern is the grand challenges facing society. "Chemistry is not the problem, chemistry is the solution," she says.
Her problem: The chemical industry is not widely recognized as a solution. Especially where the rules of the game are set by means of laws and regulations. Maas-Brunner speaks of the indispensability of chemistry for the necessary electrolyzers, which are essential for green hydrogen as an energy source. She reports on plastics that make load-bearing parts in automobiles lighter and thus more energy-efficient – regardless of their drive type. Polyurethane foams can provide valuable energy savings as a sealing material in the renovation of old buildings. She also emphasizes the value of bio-based raw materials when it comes to addressing climate change.

Anyone who listens to Maas-Brunner talk about this and other research immediately senses two things: passion and knowledge. She is not simply repeating the same old statements from a marketing brochure. As labor director, she plans to visit all her departments once a year. But not to hold a meeting with a fancy presentation to explain the latest from the company. Rather, Maas-Brunner goes into the labs and production facilities, there is where the work is done. She listens attentively, asks questions, and takes their concerns seriously. She has to because increasingly Maas-Brunner is – necessarily – highly persuasive: She has to convincingly explain why chemistry is not a problem, but a solution. And then she declares: “To master global challenges such as climate change and the optimal use of limited resources, our society needs innovations from the field of chemistry more than ever.”

To achieve this, a company like BASF must be able to innovate and produce. "Unfortunately, there is a trend of wanting to ban things and this makes our lives more difficult. A chemical reaction in a boiler, for example, requires a sealing ring and special polymers for this. But if these are no longer allowed to be produced in Germany, then we can't operate any plants," she says.

More Scope for Innovation

The equation is simple: "The industry has to function for the rest of the country to function," Maas-Brunner says. She discusses these issues with politicians in Mainz, Berlin, and Brussels, seeks the cooperation of industry, universities, and politics, and is, among other things, a member of the Biotechnology Advisory Board of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. BASF has also launched its own Chemovator, where employees can pursue ideas that are not actually part of BASF's core business. If a startup is built from within the company – all the better. "I would like to see politics give us more freedom to also effectively harness our innovations," she says. The general conditions increasingly ensured that innovations were lost. "If things continue like this, Europe will not be as strong in the future. I hope it does not come to that. Unfortunately, though, it feels like we're heading toward a dead end."

We need a new plan. And Maas-Brunner has known this since her first months in the lab. When she submitted her doctoral thesis at RWTH "On the Lewis Acid-Catalyzed Kinetic Chiral Resolution of Oxiranes by Ring Opening With Amines", she was initially assigned to the plant protection area at BASF. But she was able to convince those responsible at BASF of her own plan: Applying homogeneous catalysis, i.e. the method used in her doctoral thesis, outside the plant protection area in the traditional Ammonia Lab in Ludwigshafen. Compounds such as acetylene and epoxides became central building blocks of their daily lab routine. And then there was the issue of aromatics. Plasticizers in children's toys were classified as a health concern. Maas-Brunner started with catalytic hydrogenation from diisononyl phthalate, finally, endless hours spent in the lab resulted in Hexamoll® DINCH, a harmless phthalate-free alternative – and her project made it to production.

There was still an enormous hurdle at the end. Because back then, the budget for this project was too small to purchase a new high-pressure reactor. But Maas-Brunner's passion for her research project ensured that she solved this problem as well. She went looking and actually found an unused reactor on the plant site that she then had perfectly refurbished. This saved them the initial cost of a new one, so production could start. By the way, it is still running – in the same reactor.

Author: Thorsten Karbach