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Interview with Carles Navarro, General Manager of BASF Spain SL

17 June 2021

BASF has contributed to the construction of the Advanced Nanotechnology and Materials Laboratory with the IQS Process Transfer and Integrative Technologies Centre (CTPTI).


You’ve spent your entire professional career at BASF after graduating from IQS as a Chemical Engineer. How did you get started and how did you get to this point?
I must say that I have never worked as a chemist! My first job at BASF didn't have much to do with chemistry: I started as an applications technician for plastics transformation processes, a job in which I learned about how corporations work and I was able to travel to Germany a lot. From there, I transferred to the sales department. At the same time, I was studying a master's degree in Marketing and Sales Management at ESADE. Later, I was promoted to being the manager of the automotive plastics department, a job I held for three years. Then they proposed a radical change for me to transfer to a BASF subsidiary in Rubí called Elastogran. The company manufactures polyurethanes and I was responsible for one of the business areas. I continued taking on responsibilities, but in a totally different field from the one I had worked in thus far, and in a small company.
In 2004, BASF asked me to take over a subsidiary that it had bought in Turkey, where I spent about five years as the General Manager. It was a really interesting project to redo the entire factory, adapt it to BASF standards, and make it grow. It was a truly special time, and I learned a lot! I later returned to Barcelona as the Sales Director and Vice President for BASF Spain and Portugal. I held these positions for three and a half years, until the possibility of transferring to BASF Canada to become the company's President and Head of the country arose in 2013. It was a drastic change in terms of structure, turnover, culture, and more. It was a great challenge that kept me busy for three years, until I was asked to return here in 2016 to be the General Manager of BASF Spain SL, where I still am today. I've spent my entire career with BASF!

What has your IQS education meant for you in your professional development?
Studying at IQS was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life, without a doubt! It wasn't easy though. My family didn't have the money to pay for tuition, and I had to work summers to pay for it, along with help from my parents as well. But once on campus, and with all the demands of studying at IQS – degrees took six years to complete back then, including the final project – I graduated with great confidence. I had a strong, distinctive, and rigorous education that was also very practical and oriented towards industry.
Studying at IQS made it possible for me to grow and progress with tools such as problem solving skills and the capacity for working hard (earning my degree was challenging at times), but the reward was great and it has allowed me to come this far. In addition to your academic background, however, sometimes getting to a certain point is the result of chance or luck, someone who believes they can trust you. I never thought I'd make it this far when I started at IQS, never. But here we are!

Let's talk about your role as General Manager at BASF and the group's strong investment in Spain expected for 2021.
BASF landed in Catalonia 52 years ago in 1969, with a clear investment commitment to our region. Investments have grown over the years, building and investing in more plants and infrastructure, reaching around €55-60 million a year. The investments aren't as large as those made in the early 2000s, but they are highly welcome as they are aimed at safety improvements, environmental protection, digitising units, expanding capacity and lines, and more.
Regarding the €60 million that will be invested in 2021, 50% will remain in Tarragona, where €12 million is being allocated to obtain continuous polypropylene at the propane dehydrogenation plant, a very important unit that provides raw materials to the polypropylene plant at our site, which we aim to continue expanding.
The other investments are being dedicated to sites such as Guadalajara, where we have an automotive paint plant and where we are renovating all the technical application equipment, that is, the laboratories that test recipes for customers and detect quality problems. We've been increasing investments since 2019, reaching this high figure for 2021 despite the overall situation. In short, this is our clear commitment to the region. We haven't stopped investing, not even during the challenging year of the pandemic (2020) when we didn't take our foot off the gas.

As part of the Sustainable Development Goals, BASF is firmly committed to the Circular Economy and to significantly reducing waste. Tell us about the ChemCyclingTM project that you started.
At BASF, we always say that we create chemistry for a sustainable future, but that this future will be circular or it won't exist at all. Sustainability inevitably goes through circularity, because the fact is that we're consuming more resources than the planet can regenerate. A few days ago, a news article was published stating that Spain had passed what's called Overshoot Day – the day on which a country has consumed the resources that nature can regenerate in a year – in the month of May. Right now, we are consuming through borrowing at the rate of 1.6 – 1.7 “earths” per year, and this is unsustainable.
We have to rethink production systems and make continuous use of resources, with the idea that waste simply means resources in the wrong place. There are few things that cannot be used, but we must design the systems to do so.
Plastic waste is one of the biggest problems, not because the type of material itself, but because of the misuse that we all make of plastics as they often end up being tossed into the environment, due to our own actions, instead of end up in the recycling bin. That said, mechanical recycling has some limitations: it's fine when the waste is clean, just one type, and can be harnessed to make identical, yet recycled materials. But what happens when the waste is mixed or dirty? No facilities exist to recover and recycle them mechanically. This is where a complement to mechanical recycling comes into play, a substitution for incinerating these materials or sending them to a landfill. This involves chemical recycling, which we call ChemCyclingTM. This consists of transforming mixed waste into pyrolysis oil, a fantastic raw material to produce new plastic materials, thus giving waste new life without affecting the environment. This can include everything from old tyres to polyurethane mattresses: if we take advantage of them, we are able, first, to reduce the amount of waste that ends up incinerated, in landfills, or dumped in the environment and, second, we reduce the consumption of raw fossil fuels that we use to produce more plastic material. This system has infinite potential and is one of our biggest commitments to the future.

BASF has contributed to the construction of the Advanced Nanotechnology and Materials Laboratory with the IQS Process Transfer and Integrative Technologies Centre (CTPTI). What is BASF's commitment to IQS to promote advanced research and technology transfer?
We are proud to be able to contribute to creating this research and technology transfer infrastructure at IQS, not just because of my special relationship with the university. When the project was proposed to us, we had the opportunity first and we also saw the need to create this type of infrastructure, especially to promote technology transfer. A lot of top-tier research is conducted in Catalonia: we have 10 times more publications than what would be expected for the size of the population. But completing the step of transferring knowledge to industry is challenging, and it seems as if this connection is missing from the technology transfer processes.
I believe that this is a duty held by both chemical industries and higher education. In a certain way, we need a "connecting cable" between research and what society needs. Things move too slowly and we waste a lot of research potential. I think that it should be the opposite: problems can be identified by society or industry, and universities can research real applications and solve actual problems. For this reason, the creation of a centre like the CTPTI at IQS, which addresses technology transfer and, above all, nanotechnology – which we use in many of our production lines – seemed like a great idea to us and we are thrilled to be part of its success.

You are also the President of the Spanish Chemical Industry Business Federation (FEIQUE), which recently presented its latest report on the chemical sector, a very strategic sector in our country. What is its current situation? What has been – and remains – its role in the crisis and the pandemic that we have experienced?
It's a strategic sector for the economy, without a doubt, because of its weight and because of its internationalisation as an export sector (2021 report). At the same time, we also have a role as an essential sector. The industry has been legally declared essential: during the pandemic, no factories were forced to shut down. Those that did close did so because they stopped manufacturing, which was the case for suppliers in the automotive sector. Furthermore, certain areas had to increase their activity such as detergent and solvent manufacturers, the food value chain, packaging, and so on, and many factories had to adapt to manufacturing highly-needed products such as hand sanitizer, disinfectants, or medicinal oxygen in shift-based work environments with frequent changes to maintain the necessary safety conditions for workers. We managed not only to keep production running, but to also respond to the additional production requested. The chemical industry, and clearly the pharmaceutical industry as well, has done a sensational job.
This has made it possible to showcase the role of the chemical industry. Throughout the pandemic, our reputation improved in the eyes and views of the general public. Our essential role –sometimes camouflaged and not easily visible – was obvious to the public during this emergency situation.
And the government also saw this clearly and recognised our essential role, which has been very visible throughout this time. We collaborated closely with public entities during each state of alarm, such as when we were specially authorised to use bioethanol to manufacture hand sanitizer.


Finally, as President of the Chemical Expo Hall at the Barcelona Fairgrounds, how will the long-awaited next edition in September 2021 be presented? What are the most outstanding new things we will see?
This edition of the Chemical Expo has had some delicate moments: it was initially scheduled for summer 2020 as it seemed like a more attractive time to us for everyone. Due to the pandemic, it has already been postponed twice, but now we can finally say that it will be held from 14 to 17 September. It will be a "Covid-safe" edition with significant efforts so everyone feels safe (exhibitors and visitors), featuring a threefold focus on the Circular Economy, Advanced Materials, and Technology Transfer, not to mention the technical conferences, the Chemical Expo Bio, and the Mediterranean Chemical Engineering Conference. This will all take place within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 agenda, with private and public support.
I would like to highlight that it will be the first industrial fair that will take place in Europe since the beginning of the pandemic, as other important fairs have been postponed until 2022. We hope it will be a great success, and we welcome everyone to join us!