New processes and technologies
As part of the “Transformation of the chemical industry” series of articles, we are now looking at the penultimate field of action, which is devoted to process operations and technologies in the chemical industry.
The Achilles’ heel of the chemical industry is its high consumption of energy and raw materials. This industry segment accounts for around 10.5 percent of German energy consumption. The proportion is even higher for natural gas and electricity, the two most important energy sources for the chemical industry. A comparison with other industrial sectors shows that the manufacture of chemical products requires the most energy (2020: 304.7 billion kWh). Natural gas plays a crucial role in the chemical industry. Compared to other industries, it is not only used to generate energy, but also serves as a feedstock for various important chemical precursors such as syngas, ammonia and acetylene. Around one-third of natural gas is used as a feedstock, while the remaining share, around two-thirds, is used for energy production. Looking more closely at the feedstock base for organic chemical products, about 3.2 million metric tons of natural gas (16 percent) were required in the chemical industry in 2021. However, the most important source of raw material is naphtha, a crude gasoline, with a share of 69 percent (13.4 million metric tons). Other sources include renewable raw materials (13 percent) and coal (2 percent).
The chemical industry accounts for around 15 percent of total gas consumption for energy generation in Germany. Natural gas is currently still an indispensable raw material and an energy source in the chemical industry that is difficult to replace. To achieve climate protection targets, the German chemical industry needs to make its processes and products climate-neutral by 2050. The industrial sector faces the challenging task of electrifying manufacturing processes with the help of green electricity, closing carbon cycles and replacing fossil raw materials with renewable alternatives. One example of this is the use of hydrogen, which is currently derived mainly from fossil gas. Green hydrogen is expected to replace fossil hydrogen as a feedstock for the chemical industry. The German Chemical Industry Association predicts that the demand for hydrogen for the chemical industry will increase from the current 1.1 million tons per year to about 7 million tons in 2050. A large proportion of this hydrogen is to be produced at chemical sites in Germany, necessitating the construction of electrolysis plants.
Electrification – the key to climate neutrality
In order to take the decisive step toward CO2 neutrality, fundamentally new processes are required for the production of basic chemicals. The chemical industry is, therefore, intensively dedicated to researching and developing new technologies that use renewable energies and greatly reduce the use of fossil resources through the closed carbon cycle. Investments of more than 45 billion euros are needed to make production almost completely climate-neutral by 2050. According to the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI), the demand for electricity would multiply from the current level of around 53 terawatt hours (TWh) to 685 TWh. This corresponds to eleven times the current electricity consumption of the German chemical industry and even exceeds the total electricity consumption in Germany (2022: 484 TWh, source: Federal Network Agency). VCI calculations show that the industry can achieve climate neutrality by 2050. However, this requires a high degree of electrification as well as the use of large amounts of electricity from renewable sources. Specifically, the share of electricity-based processes in the chemical industry must be increased from the current 10 percent to 80 percent. This is the only way to achieve climate neutrality.
The energy- and raw material-intensive production of basic chemical substances releases around 37 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents each year. That is about two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions of the entire chemical and pharmaceutical industry and about 19 percent of Germany’s total industrial emissions.
Although the chemical industry produces thousands of compounds worldwide, the greatest potential for reducing emissions can be narrowed down to just a few basic chemicals. Basic chemicals such as methanol, hydrogen or ammonia are responsible for more than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, these products, in particular, are the focus of process and technology change, as they are indispensable starting points for innovative products in everyday life.
Energy-intensive basic materials in the chemical industry
BASF is working intensively on some of the most important climate-friendly technologies, as listed below.
Focus technologies & processes of BASF
This includes the use of the electrically powered steam cracker furnace for the production of basic chemicals and the development of processes for the production of hydrogen such as methane pyrolysis and water electrolysis. The supply of clean hydrogen is crucial for the successful transformation toward a climate-friendly chemical industry, mobility and environmentally friendly heating solutions. In addition, BASF is intensively dedicated to doing research on the storage of CO2 and has developed a process to produce methanol without greenhouse gas emissions.
Energy-intensive processes in the chemical industry
In basic chemicals production, there are several energy-intensive processes that are required for the production of basic chemicals. Below are some examples of the energy-intensive processes in the production of commodity chemicals:
- Steam-Cracking: Steam cracking is a process used to produce olefins such as ethylene and propylene, which are important feedstocks for the production of plastics. It involves cracking natural gas or naphtha at high temperatures (800-900 °C) and with steam to produce the desired olefins and other by-products such as aromatics. This process requires a considerable amount of thermal energy.
- Haber-Bosch process: The Haber-Bosch process is used for the large-scale production of ammonia, which in turn is an important feedstock for the production of fertilizers and chemical compounds. This process requires high pressures and temperatures (around 200-300 °C) as well as the use of catalysts. Providing the necessary energy for the process is energy intensive.
- Electrolysis: Electrolysis is used to produce certain metals such as aluminum, magnesium and sodium from their ores or salts. Electric current is passed through an electrolyte solution to reduce the metal ions and deposit the pure metal. Electrolysis is an energy-intensive process because it requires a significant amount of electrical energy.
- Chlor-alkali electrolysis: Chlor-alkali electrolysis is an important process for the production of chlorine, caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and hydrogen. It involves the electrolysis of an aqueous solution of sodium chloride. Electrolysis requires a significant amount of electrical energy because both chlorine and hydrogen are produced in large quantities.
- Production of phosphoric acid: Phosphoric acid is used in the food industry, metallurgy and fertilizer production. The production of phosphoric acid requires the reaction of phosphate rock with sulfuric acid at high temperatures. This process requires both thermal energy and the use of sulfuric acid.
- Production of titanium dioxide: Titanium dioxide is used in the pigment, plastics and coatings industries. Titanium dioxide is usually produced by the chloride or sulfate route. Both processes require high temperatures and large amounts of energy for the oxidation of titanium ore.
- Synthesis of polyethylene and polypropylene: The production of the important plastics polyethylene and polypropylene is carried out by polymerization of ethylene and propylene, respectively. This process requires the use of catalysts, high pressures and high temperatures, resulting in considerable energy consumption.
- Refining processes: In the petrochemical industry, various processes are used to refine crude oil to produce basic chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylenes. These processes, including distillation, cracking, and reforming, require high temperatures and pressures, as well as the use of catalysts, resulting in significant energy requirements.
- Synthesis of basic chemicals: The production of various basic chemicals such as ethylene oxide, styrene, methanol, and acetylene require energy-intensive processes. These chemicals are used as feedstocks in many industries and often require complex chemical reactions, which in turn require thermal energy and catalysts.
According to the Federal Environment Agency, greenhouse gas emissions in Germany fell by around 40 percent in the period from 1990 to 2022. Despite rising production rates, the chemical industry in Germany was even able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 51 percent from 1990 to 2018. However, to achieve the goal of greenhouse gas neutrality, it is now necessary to implement new production processes and develop renewable raw material sources. There are different approaches to replace or optimize energy-intensive processes in the chemical industry to save energy and reduce emissions. Possible measures are listed below:
- Use of renewable energy: The use of renewable energy sources such as solar energy, wind energy and geothermal energy can reduce the need for fossil fuels and cut CO2 emissions. Chemical companies can operate their production facilities with renewable energy sources or enter into partnerships with renewable energy providers.
- Increasing energy efficiency: By optimizing process parameters, recovering heat, and using energy-efficient technologies, chemical companies can reduce energy consumption in their production facilities. This can be done, for example, by using heat exchangers, insulating piping and equipment, or implementing energy-saving measures.
- Use of advanced catalysts and enzymes: By using efficient catalysts, chemical reactions can be carried out at lower temperatures and pressures, which reduces energy demand. Advances in catalyst development allow energy-intensive reactions to be carried out more efficiently and selectively. Furthermore, enzymes as biocatalysts offer some advantages for a sustainable chemical industry such as mild reaction conditions, biodegradability, high selectivity and, therefore, low by-product formation.
- Electrochemical processes: Electrochemical processes offer the potential to replace energy-intensive processes. Electrolysis processes powered by renewable energies, for example, can be used to produce basic chemical materials and reduce the use of traditional, energy-intensive processes. In the Fraunhofer lead project “Electricity as a Raw Material,” for example, Fraunhofer IGB has developed a one-step process that can be used to produce ethylene electrochemically in just one process step. An electrolysis cell in which hydrogen peroxide can be produced from water and air alone using electrical energy is also already available as a prototype at the IGB. Due to the availability of regenerative electrical energy, the chemical and energy sectors will merge more and more in the future.
- Use of renewable raw materials: The use of renewable raw materials instead of fossil raw materials can reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the chemical industry. Biochemical processes, such as the fermentation of sugar or starch to produce bioplastics or biochemicals, offer alternative approaches based on renewable resources.
- Process optimization and plant modernization: Gains in energy efficiency can be achieved through continuous process optimization and plant modernization. The use of advanced measurement and control techniques, monitoring of process parameters, and the use of data analysis help to optimize energy consumption and reduce emissions.
Measures for a climate-neutral chemical industry
The key to a climate-neutral chemical industry lies, among other things, in the electrification of chemical processes. The following obstacles stand in the way, or these significant challenges exist:
- Energy demand: The chemical industry consumes large amounts of energy. Therefore, the transition to a fully electrified system requires significant investment in infrastructure, including the expansion of renewable energy generation and the power grid, to meet the additional energy demand. Currently, this energy demand cannot be provided for a carbon-neutral chemical industry.
- Availability of renewable power: Electrification of the chemical industry is dependent on the availability of renewable power. It is necessary to provide sufficient renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power to meet the increased demand for electrical power. Fluctuations in the availability of renewable energy also require the development of energy storage systems to ensure a continuous supply of electricity. Currently, there is not enough energy available from renewable sources for a climate-neutral chemical industry.
- Process temperatures and pressures: Some chemical processes require high temperatures and pressures that are difficult to achieve with electrically powered technologies. The development of efficient high-temperature electric heating systems and electrochemical reactors that can meet these requirements is a technological challenge. Further research effort is needed here to optimize the processes.
- Cost and economics: Electrification of the chemical industry requires significant investment in new equipment and technologies. Currently, electric processes can be more expensive in some cases than conventional, energy-intensive processes. Economies of scale, cost reductions, and competitive renewable electricity are needed to make electrification attractive.
- Adaptation of processes and infrastructure: The switch to electrically powered technologies often requires adjustments to existing production facilities and infrastructure. This can be associated with operational and technical challenges and requires investments in the retrofitting and modernization of facilities.
- Research and development: Further research and development is needed to develop new electrically powered technologies for the chemical industry and improve their scalability, efficiency and reliability. Further investment is also needed in research into new catalysts, materials and processes suitable for electric processes.
Fields of tension new processes & technologies
Despite a number of obstacles, there is currently growing momentum and research activity to advance the electrification of the chemical industry. A key example from the chemical industry is currently the development of electrically heated steam crackers.
The steam cracker is the heart of any chemical park.
Steam cracking is a petrochemical process in which long-chain hydrocarbons are converted into short-chain hydrocarbons by thermal cracking. Numerous value-adding chains start in the steam crackers. BASF’s two steam crackers at the Ludwigshafen site are among the company’s largest production plants and form the heart of the chemical park. The dimensions of these plants are impressive. BASF’s Steamcracker II, for example, covers an area of around 13 soccer fields. In Germany, 10 steam crackers are currently in operation, and in the EU28, around 50 steam crackers from twenty companies are in operation. The dimensions of a steam cracker alone show very clearly how important it is to convert the huge production facilities to a low-carbon chemical industry.
Around 90 percent of the CO2 emissions from a steam cracker are caused by the heating of the cracking furnace. More than 300 million tons of CO2 emissions are caused by steam cracking worldwide every year. In order to achieve a reduction in these greenhouse gas emissions, research is being carried out worldwide into the technology of an electrically heated steam cracker furnace. Currently, this technology is not yet in use, but a consortium consisting of BASF, Sabic and Linde is planning to develop and build a pilot plant with an electrically heated steam cracker furnace. This would be the world’s first electrically heated steam cracker. Instead of fossil fuels, sustainably generated electricity would be used to heat the cracking furnaces. BASF now plans to build a multi-megawatt pilot plant with electric heating at its Ludwigshafen site by 2023. At the same time, Dow and Shell are also jointly driving forward development. Initially, these processes will be tested on a pilot scale. However, Ineos has already announced the construction of a large-scale plant in the port of Antwerp, although the exact technology has not yet been determined. The new cracker is to use ethane as a raw material and could in the future be heated exclusively with hydrogen produced in a climate-neutral manner. In addition, options for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and electrically powered furnaces are to be considered during construction.
The electricity for BASF’s steam crackers, which will be heated in the future, is to come from offshore wind farms in the North Sea. BASF is cooperating with the German energy company RWE on this project. At the Antwerp site, where BASF also operates a steam cracker, there is a cooperation with the company Vattenfall for an offshore wind farm off the Dutch coast. Converting the steam crackers to an electrically heated version must go hand in hand with the massive expansion of renewable energies. Without the provision of sufficient “green” electricity, however, the calculation of reducing CO2 emissions from steam crackers does not add up.
The electrification of processes plays a crucial role in the transformation of the chemical industry toward a climate-neutral orientation.
BASF, for example, aims to replace all fossil fuels with electricity from renewable sources as early as 2030. The German chemical industry will need huge amounts of additional electricity. As mentioned, the current demand of around 53 terawatt hours (TWh) will multiply to 685 TWh, more than the whole of Germany currently consumes. This impressively illustrates the enormous dimensions involved in making the chemical industry climate-neutral. We at SVP see the following requirements for climate neutrality to succeed in 2050:
Fields of action – new processes & technologies
In the next article, my colleague, Dr. Ronald Hinz, will address the topic of renewable energies, which is important for the chemical industry, and will focus, in particular, on current projects and new developments.
Dr. Volkhard Franke, Market Intelligence Senior Expert
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