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Interview with Dr. Andreas Bode, Project manager Carbon Management R&D program

We are constantly hearing about the decarbonization of industry. Some are calling for a radical change in the economy. Is a carbon-free chemical industry even possible?

No. Such demands are unrealistic. The term decarbonization refers to an important discussion about the energy sector. That sector produces electricity and steam, which both do not contain any carbon. Decarbonization ultimately means the production of products without greenhouse gas emissions. The word “carbon” is part of this term only because carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas. Our products are made up of 50 percent carbon, so a carbon-free chemical industry is simply not possible.

But we do want to achieve a more efficient use of carbon and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to the climate protection aspect, I as a scientist see the release of CO2 into the atmosphere as the loss of a resource. We want the carbon to stay within our products and therefore we use the term Carbon Management.

Aspects of the new CO2 emission-free methanol synthesis process were tested in a pilot plant at BASF’s subsidiary hte GmbH in Heidelberg, Germany. Project manager Dr. Maximilian Vicari and hte expert Dr. Nakul Thakar are pleased to have solved challenges that arose during the activation of the catalyst and the operation of the plant.

The production processes of basic chemicals account for 70 percent of the emissions in the entire chemical industry and are the building blocks for more than 20,000 products. 

BASF takes climate protection seriously. The company’s purpose is: “We create chemistry for a sustainable future.” What are current solutions to protect the climate?

We have achieved a lot already: Since 1990, we have lowered our greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent – barely any other industry sector can match that. At the same time, we have doubled our production volumes, which means that we emit 75 percent less greenhouse gases per kilogram of product. But now we are reaching the limits. Nevertheless, we still continue to work first and foremost on further optimizing our existing processes so that our CO2 emissions are as low as possible. As a company, we achieve this by continuously observing our production and optimizing it wherever possible.

The second lever we use is to increase our procurement of wind and solar power at all the sites where we purchase electricity.

The third area is developing entirely new production processes for basic chemicals. These chemicals account for 70 percent of the emissions in the entire chemical industry and are the building blocks for more than 20,000 products. So, if we are able to lower emissions here, it will be a big step forward.

In general, our greatest priority is avoiding CO2. This is where we focus our efforts. We do not rely on storage methods for capturing CO2 emissions.

All those activities are part of our plan to grow until 2030 without increasing our CO2 emissions. This is already a very ambitious goal. For the time after 2030, we want to further reduce those emissions with our new production processes.

 

At the Research Press Conference 2019, Martin Brudermüller introduced the Carbon Management R&D program which targets the post-2030 period. What exactly are you researching here?

The Carbon Management R&D program includes several very ambitious research projects, such as hydrogen production and the electrically-powered steam cracker. Hydrogen production offers major potential for CO2 savings. Until now, hydrogen has been used by the chemical industry mainly as a chemical reaction partner. In the future, though, it may also become more important as a source of energy and as a storage medium. Using methane pyrolysis – which splits natural gas into hydrogen and solid carbon – hydrogen could one day be produced with relatively low energy inputs and without CO2 emissions.

Looking at the steam cracker as an example, the potential is truly impressive. If we are able to switch the cracker over from natural gas to renewable electricity, we could save up to 90 percent of the CO2 emissions. Here we expect to be able to present results from a pilot plant within the next five years.

 

To nonexperts, operating a steam cracker with electricity instead of gas does not sound particularly novel. What is the greatest challenge here?

At the moment, our colleagues are working on a “proof of concept” to show that an e-cracker can in fact be operated. There are many challenges to overcome here. First, we have to figure out what materials can be used because the current ones will likely be unable to withstand the new process. The steam cracker therefore must be redesigned from the ground up and a new safety concept will be needed because we will be working with enormous currents. And, of course, we have to figure out where the electricity will come from. If we want to heat up large volumes of naphtha to over 800 degrees Celsius using electricity, we will definitely need more energy.

 

More energy in order to save CO2?

That’s right. If we were to switch from our conventional fuels to renewable energy, we would need more electricity than we do now. A lot more. This sounds paradoxical at first, but it is actually quite simple: If, in the future, we use less gas to produce energy such as steam, we will need more electricity. We are currently working on the technical feasibility of this. However, this also means that the required amount of electricity will have to be available. For the steam cracker alone, we would need the electricity generated by around 300 large wind turbines. This means we also need lawmakers to create the conditions for this to work. We need a steady supply of electricity from renewable sources at competitive prices. After all, we do not want to save CO2 here, only to have it produced elsewhere in coal-fueled power plants.

 

The Carbon Management program has some big goals. What are the next steps and which time frames are we talking about here?

It is true, our goals are big. That is why our Carbon Management R&D program also has a unique and very interdisciplinary program structure which enables us to meet these goals. Right now, around 100 colleagues from research and development as well as from the operating units are working closely together to achieve this.

In the research context, 10 to 15 years of development time is typical, especially since we are mainly working here on truly groundbreaking technologies, which we want to implement. Of course, we want to accomplish everything quickly, but also as safely as possible.