What our researchers say
Dieter Flick: Methane pyrolysis is a fundamentally new process technology that splits natural gas or biomethane directly into the components hydrogen and solid carbon. This process requires relatively little energy. And if it uses electricity from renewable sources, there are actually no greenhouse gas emissions. This is an idea that has existed since the 1960s, but has always failed due to technical implementation.
BASF has been researching methane pyrolysis since 2010, and between 2013 and 2017 also as part of a BMBF-funded joint project. We are working at full speed on the new production processes because climate protection is important to us and we want to make rapid progress in this area. For this reason, the project is also part of the Carbon Management R&D Program, in which BASF has been bundling research activities since 2018.
We need to do fundamental research into the pyrolysis process and we are continuing to work on this. At the laboratory level, we have studied the technical feasibility and reaction kinetics; we have then developed a first reactor concept with a moving carbon bed and we have produced small samples of solid carbon. Now the next step is coming up. Last year, the BMBF approved further funding for methane pyrolysis.
Frederik Scheiff: The essence of this project is the step out of the laboratory and into a larger test facility. This step is a real milestone for us. Our test plant is about 15 m high and we have been building it in Ludwigshafen since last summer. The aim is to find out whether the process can also succeed on an industrial scale.
Construction is progressing well. Of course, all corona protection measures are observed, such as the obligation to wear masks, because the colleagues cannot always keep their distance. But that is working very well. The central parts for the reactor will be delivered and installed in summer.
The test facility is expected to be ready by the end of the year. After a start-up phase, we will operate it in shifts around the clock. Among other things, it will provide information on the heating concept, but also on the use of new types of high-temperature materials.
Dieter Flick: Of course, the construction of this test facility does not mean that the research work is finished. Together with the project partners, we are currently investigating suitable uses for the carbon, for example. In methane pyrolysis, carbon is produced as a solid product and could be used in the aluminum, steel and construction industries or as a graphite substitute for battery materials. Many investigations and patent applications are currently underway, always with always with regard to the overall carbon footprint.
Frederik Scheiff: It is a very long way from the idea to the realization of such a project. We are all very excited because the test facility is a first step and enters a fundamentally different dimension compared to the laboratory. As soon as the test plant is running stable, we will start another research project in which we will work on the scale-up and prepare the construction of a pilot plant.
Dieter Flick: If the production of hydrogen and solid carbon in the test facility and the subsequent commercial implementation of the process in a pilot plant are successful, this would not only be a breakthrough for BASF's research team. The new process could also be an important building block for CO2-reduced production of basic chemicals, such as ammonia and methanol, throughout the chemical industry.
The process – provided we use electricity from renewable energy sources – is CO2-neutral. However, this also requires clean electricity in the necessary quantities and at competitive prices, which is essentially a question of the political framework conditions. For me and the whole team, this project is definitely a special challenge and we are proud that we can help shape this path to a low-carbon chemistry.