Chemical processes are driving fast technological change in the fascinating world of atoms and molecules. Merck offers a broad portfolio of specialty chemicals that can be encountered almost everywhere: whether in consumer electronics, architecture, automobiles, or even the universe.

Our chemical materials are already finding their way to space today, inside the chips of diverse electronic instruments and the solar panels of satellites. It is quite imaginable that Merck will have an even stronger presence in space in the future, however. Our successful collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) provides a solid foundation for this.

The two partners are united by curiosity, their passion to explore the unknown. In joint projects and workshops, the scientists and engineers share ideas on, for example, the utilization of virtual reality and Big Data. “ESA can contribute its expertise in space travel in fields such as digitalization, materials science and health. In return, ESA can also learn a lot from the innovative business of a leading science and technology company,” says ESA Director General Prof. Jan Wörner. In autumn 2017, Merck and ESA co-hosted a hackathon, an event for creatively developing new solutions. “The young scientists and start-ups address, among other things, the question of how to analyze the spread of neglected tropical diseases using data and instruments from space travel,” says Matthias Simnacher, coordinator of the ESA-Merck partnership at the Merck Innovation Center. Within the scope of further joint projects and competitions, Merck is advancing the development of materials for use in space – such as special coatings and additives.

350 years of Merck

1888 The discovery of liquid crystals.

In 1888, the Austrian chemist and botanist Friedrich Reinitzer sees that cholesteryl benzoate derived from carrots has two different melting points.

He asks Otto Lehmann, a German physicist, to support him with his research. Lehmann realizes that cholesteryl benzoate and other substances have a further phase in between the liquid and solid state. He called these substances “liquid crystals,” the basis of today's LC displays.

Skin-like solar cells

Our materials are already being used to manufacture high-performance solar cells for satellites and missions to the planets. Yet Merck is also working to utilize solar energy on Earth. Above all, building façades and roofs offer extensive surfaces for climate-friendly power generation based on organic photovoltaics (OPV). Only one kilogram of OPV can cover the size of a football field. Merck develops and produces inks based on semiconducting polymers for OPV modules. These are one hundred times thinner than a hair and are printed by means of simple methods similarly to a newspaper. Therefore, the cost-efficient solar cells can be used on both rigid and flexible substrates. The extremely lightweight and flexible organic solar foils open up future-­oriented applications. OPV elements can be integrated on all kinds of surfaces – such as electrical devices, cars or clothing. They also can be applied on curved surfaces like a second skin. Or even on “trees”. The components from Merck were part of the solar trees at the EXPO Milano 2015. These plant-like objects are twelve meters tall and generate electricity by means of numerous OPV modules. They were recently installed at Merck headquarters in Darmstadt. “We are working intensively to increase the application possibilities and efficiency levels of printable organic solar cells,” says Thomas Kietzke, Head of OPV in the Advanced Technologies business unit.

Organic photovoltaic technology (OPV) was already used in power-generating solar trees at the 2015 World Expo.

The rise of liquid crystals

There is amazing potential not only in the sun, but also in carrots. In 1888, Friedrich Reinitzer, a chemist, investigated cholesterol, which he extracted from the root vegetable. In doing so, he noticed that the substance had two melting points – and happened to discover liquid crystals. The scientific community was impressed. And in 1904, Merck produced liquid crystals at the request of Otto Lehmann, a physicist. The only problem was that no practical application could be found at the time for the curious scientific phenomenon. So research slumbered again until 1968 – exactly 300 years after the company was founded – when a few young researchers at Merck devoted themselves to liquid crystals (LCs). They discovered that the molecules were ideally suited for manufacturing displays. The first liquid crystal displays were soon being built into wristwatches and pocket calculators. Display panels, televisions, computers, tablets and smartphones followed later. Technological development gathered momentum, demand grew significantly – and Merck is the global market leader to this day.


New LC applications for automobiles

Yet the exciting career of liquid crystals is continuing, as new fields of application are increasingly being discovered, for example automobiles. One focus is on materials for lighting systems. For example, smart LCD matrix headlights can adapt light distribution with high resolution as needed in real time. “The core component is the display with liquid crystals developed by Merck specifically for this application and featuring high temperature stability,” says Dieter Schroth, responsible for new applications of LC technology. Liquid crystal mixtures from Merck are additionally used in innovative satellite antennas. In the age of digitalization, car drivers want to be “always on”, also while on the road. Smart antennas steer their beam electronically through a liquid crystal layer, thus constantly maintaining contact with the satellite. This makes it possible to receive huge data volumes at almost any location in the world. Compared with other antenna solutions, LC antennas are extremely flat and cost-effectively adaptable. They can thus be easily integrated into the roof of a car. Another potential application in the automotive sector is liquid crystal window technology developed by Merck. In­dividually switchable car windows and sunroofs can be darkened at the push of a button in the future.

Production of liquid crystal window modules in Veldhoven, the Netherlands.

Crystal-clear view

Smart windows based on the technology from Merck are already being used in architecture. “In smart glass applications, our liquid crystals regulate the light transmission of window panes and façades by means of transparent conductive coatings. A switching process determines the alignment of the liquid crystal molecules on the glass surface and thus the desired change in light transmission,” explains Johannes Canisius, Head of the Liquid Crystal Windows business field. LC windows can be used in buildings in many variants, for example as sun protection and privacy control. As sun protection, they could make it possible to do without exterior blinds, as they can be darkened to a few percent light transmission with continuously variable switching within seconds. By means of optimizing the amount of light and heat entering, the technology can significantly increase the energy efficiency of buildings with glazed façades. Savings of up to 40% of the building’s energy consumption are possible. Also when darkened, the windows remain transparent and provide a color-neutral view to the outside. The privacy variant switches immediately from transparent to opaque. Rooms with glazed walls can also be easily protected from looks from outside – from conference rooms and bathrooms to treatment rooms in hospitals. In November 2017, Merck commissioned the company’s first facility worldwide for the production of liquid crystal window modules in Veldhoven, the Netherlands.

Innovative processes for chip manufacture

The production of semiconductor materials for chip manufacture is also in full swing at Merck. These materials are used in a wide variety of electronic applications. Ever smaller, faster, more powerful, energy-­efficient and economical is the motto in this dynamic market. With the growing demand for electronic devices, the demand for semiconductors is increasing, too. And further miniaturizations call for further improvements in process chemicals. Semicon­ductors are created in patterned layers that ultimately form a complete integrated circuit. Merck offers products such as antireflective coatings to improve precision of production, special aids to stabilize the structures, as well as materials that make it possible to reduce structural dimensions by means of a chemical shrinking process. Owing to the demand for ever smaller structures, Merck is researching new patterning techniques, such as directed self-assembly (DSA) and selective deposition. “Instead of the former complex and expensive lithographic processes, we want to establish smart and cost-­efficient processes in which part of the structural information is already contained in the process chemicals,” says Ralph Dammel, Research Fellow and semiconductor researcher at Merck. Through its € 300 million corporate venture capital arm Merck Ventures, which invests in innovative start-ups in three core strategic areas, Merck is also active in the semiconductor materials area. For instance by investing in Aveni, a French start-­up working on solutions to enable the semiconductor industry to further miniaturize chips.

Whether carrots or chips – with curiosity and a passion for research, Merck is shaping progress in innovative high-tech materials, which are used all around the globe – and sometimes even beyond.

350 years of Merck

1968 The official start of liquid crystal development

In 1904, our price lists already contain materials with liquid crystalline properties. In 1905, we start cooperating with Otto Lehmann, the father of liquid crystal research. We have been conducting our own research into liquid crystals since 1968.

Quality control in the liquid crystal window module facility.
Semiconductor materials from Merck are used in the manufacture of numerous chips.