Innovations for climate-friendly chemical production

Aerial drone view of stunning colorful autumn fall forest

Climate protection is firmly embedded in BASF’s new strategy. Reducing our CO2 emissions significantly and over the long term will require the development of fundamentally new low-emission technologies. In the Carbon Management research and development program, BASF has bundled all of the projects focused on the processes of the future.

Electrically heated: steam cracker furnace

Eine Fläche von rund 64.000 Quadratmetern - das entspricht 13 Fußballfeldern - umfasst der Steamcracker II, die größte einzelne Anlage am Standort Ludwigs¬hafen der BASF. Der Cracker ist auch das "Herzstück" der Verbundproduktion. Seit 1981 ist dieser Gigant in Betrieb und spaltet unter Zusatz von Wasserdampf bei etwa 850 Grad Celsius Rohbenzin auf. Dabei entstehen im wesentlichen Ethylen und Propylen, beides unverzichtbare Grundstoffe für die Herstellung vieler Produkte in Ludwigshafen.

Fossil fuels represent the largest sources of CO2 in the chemical industry because chemistry requires energy. To split naphtha into olefins and aromatics for further processing, BASF’s steam crackers need to reach a temperature of 850°C. Until now, the cracker’s furnaces have been fossil-fired, meaning they are operated with natural gas.

If we could operate these crackers with electricity from renewable sources  instead, this would reduce the CO2 emissions by up to 90 percent.

BASF, SABIC and Linde have signed a joint agreement to develop and demonstrate solutions for electrically heated steam cracker furnaces. The partners have already jointly worked on concepts to use renewable electricity instead of the fossil fuel gas typically used for the heating process. With this innovative approach focusing on one of the petrochemical industries’ core processes, the parties strive to offer a promising solution to significantly contribute to the reduction of CO2 emissions within the chemical industry.

This technology leap will be a milestone on the path to a low-emission chemical industry. We have not only developed the world’s first electrical heating concepts for steam crackers, but also want to demonstrate the reliability of key components for use in this type of high-temperature reactors. To be able to drive a timely scale-up and industrial implementation of this technology, investment support and competitive renewable energy prices will be important prerequisites.”
Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors of BASF SE, Ludwigshafen, Germany, responsible for Corporate Legal, Compliance, Tax & Insurance; Corporate Development; Corporate Communications & Government Relations; Corporate Human Resources; Corporate Investor Relations

Dr. Martin Brudermüller

Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors of BASF SE


CO2-free hydrogen production: Methane pyrolysis


The chemical industry needs large quantities of hydrogen. For instance, BASF uses it as a reactant for ammonia synthesis. Because hydrogen is indispensable for carrying and storing energy in numerous sustainable future applications, it will continue to grow in importance.

Steam reforming is currently the most important industrial-scale procedure for producing hydrogen from natural gas or coal. However, this process releases considerable quantities of CO2.

As part of its Carbon Management program, BASF is working together with cooperation partners in a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) to develop methane pyrolysis technology for producing CO2-free hydrogen from natural gas – methane pyrolysis, in which methane or natural gas, which mainly consists of methane, is split directly into its components of hydrogen and solid carbon. The process uses comparatively little energy and, if it is run using electricity from renewable resources, is even CO2-free. Compared to other processes for emission-free hydrogen production, methane pyrolysis requires only around one-fifth as much electrical energy. A pilot reactor has been constructed in Ludwigshafen and is being started up.

The technical feasibility at lab level has already been examined; an initial reactor concept with a moving carbon bed has been tested at lab scale and samples of resulting solid carbon produced. Fundamental research must now be carried out into the pyrolysis process itself, the reactor design and the heating concept. Heat-resistant materials are an additional focus. Within this project, the new test plant is currently being commissioned at the Ludwigshafen site.

It is still unclear how the granular carbon from our pyrolysis will be used. In general, there are numerous markets for solid carbon, especially for high purity carbon. Customers include, among others, the aluminium, steel, tyre and construction industries. Storage is also conceivable in principle, because our pyrolysis carbon is not a hazardous substance and can be stored in a stable manner.

The various approaches to the use or storage of pyrolysis carbon are being investigated in the current project.

Biomethane derived from biogas can also be used as the starting material of methane pyrolysis. The resulting pyrolysis carbon could be made available as climate-neutral carbon to other industries that, for example, have limited possibilities for emission reduction. If such a bio-based carbon is stored or permanently bound, this represents a so-called "carbon negative technology”.

The various possibilities are currently being investigated. Only when these questions have been answered can a pilot plant be set up. If it operates successfully, commercial methane pyrolysis could be pursued.

CO2-free production: Methanol

Methanol is an important feedstock for the chemical industry. BASF researchers therefore worked on a new climate-friendly process for producing this basic chemical with the aim of not only reducing CO2 emissions, but also not emitting any CO2 throughout the entire process. Process development as part of the Carbon Management R&D program has been completed and BASF is currently reviewing all options for use.


The process

In BASF's new process, syngas is produced by partial oxidation of natural gas or biogas, which produces no CO2 emissions. While the process steps of methanol synthesis and distillation could be adopted almost unchanged, inventiveness was required when it came to combining and processing the waste gas streams generated here. They are first burned with pure oxygen (oxyfuel combustion). Gas washing using BASF's OASE® gas washing process then completely removes CO2 from the flue gas. To ensure that its carbon is not lost but is available again for methanol synthesis, the captured CO2 is fed back into the process. Additional hydrogen is required as a supplement, which should also be produced without CO2 emissions.

CO2-free synthesis: olefins

As a central, high-volume intermediate, olefins represent an especially important area where BASF is looking to develop new low-emission processes. Currently, olefins are produced by cracking naphtha at temperatures of up to 1000°C in the steam cracker. This process creates significant CO2 emissions. 

By switching from naphtha to methane and using an electrically heated reformer furnace, these emissions could be avoided. Working in cooperation with Linde, BASF researchers were able to develop an entirely new, powerful catalyst system that enables syngas to be produced through dry reforming of methane with CO2. This syngas can be transformed into olefins via an intermediate step of dimethyl ether (DME). 

Compared to naphtha, methane has a slightly higher energy content and contains more hydrogen. As a result, the olefins production process can use not only the CO2 produced in the DME step but also additional CO2. In this way, the process becomes CO2-neutral and because of the use of additional CO2, it can even be a “carbon sink,” meaning overall it binds CO2, provided that the electrical reformer furnace is powered with renewable energy and no emissions are generated by the heating process. The research and development is currently focusing on the process of dry reforming itself. The combination with electrical heating of the reformer is an option for the future, depending on the progress of the development of the electrically heated steam cracker.