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).

Raw material base of the organic chemistry in Germany (in %)

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.

Electricity consumption (Germany) in TWh

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:

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:

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:

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