Can you imagine a heat pump as big as a soccer field?
We can. And now we’re working on plans to build industrial-scale heat pumps at our site in Ludwigshafen, Germany, which will play a key role in our climate protection strategy. By using reclaimed waste heat from chemical plants and cooling water systems to generate much of the steam we use in manufacturing, the heat pumps will dramatically reduce our need for fossil fuels.
The inspiration: the genius of heat pumps
With household energy bills going through the roof, you hear a lot about heat pumps these days. They’re impressive things. They can take outside air that doesn’t seem particularly warm, extract “hidden” heat from it, compress it to make it even hotter and then circulate it back through your heating and hot water systems. A heat pump makes your heating more efficient and reduces carbon emissions. It’s “thermodynamics in action”.
The challenge: the need for steam
Why do we need heat pumps the size of soccer fields? In short: to combine new technology with climate protection. The heat pumps will help us generate huge amounts of steam, using renewable energy in a way that’s highly energy-efficient and so will reduce our CO2 emissions.
Our chemical plants generate a large amount of waste heat, which remains largely unused at present. Our heat pumps will take this waste heat from our plants and cooling systems to make CO2-free steam. Why do we need so much steam in the first place? Because it’s essential for creating many of the chemicals that BASF supplies to almost every industry, such as construction, agriculture, personal care and many more. And we need a lot of it: around 20 million metric tonnes of steam a year at our Ludwigshafen site.
CO2-free: Steam production based on energy recovery
New ways to generate steam will play a significant role in reaching our climate targets. By 2030, we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our production sites and energy purchases by 25% compared to 2018. By 2050, we aim to achieve net zero CO2 emissions.
Not only are industrial heat pumps a thousand times bigger than domestic units, but the temperatures are much hotter and generate steam at more than 120°C. There are two types of heat pumps we can use. One can handle high-temperature waste heat at 60°C or higher, another one uses the heat from used cooling water at 30°C or lower. We need to have both options to offer customized technology for the different needs of our plants.
Currently, half of the steam we need is generated by conventional fossil fuel power plants that produce CO2 emissions. Running on electricity from renewable sources, our heat pumps will generate huge amounts of steam and cut millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions every year. The heat pumps are part of a multi-pronged approach, including also other technologies such as e-boilers and electrified steam turbines to cut our emissions to net zero by 2050.
Meet the team in the driver’s seat
The soccer field-sized heat pumps are planned initially for BASF’s site in Ludwigshafen. “It’s our task to find ways for BASF to generate steam without a CO2 footprint – and that’s what I love about my job. We develop solutions that help BASF, and also society!” enthuses Bart Van Assche, Vice President Global Infrastructure Technology at BASF, whose team is looking at the green transformation of energies, such as steam, needed to run chemical plants.
Van Assche has four children aged between seven and twelve, and his personal motivation is driving him even further: “I want to make sure they have a bright future. We have to speed up the transformation.” From his point of view, the future is not far away. Following the completion of feasibility studies, pilot plants will be built to learn how to operate these large heat pumps – with the first one coming into operation in 2026
“Verbund” - the power of joined-up thinking
Sustainability and maximising re-use of waste heat aren’t new ideas at BASF. We’ve been putting them into practice for decades. The proof is in our six Verbund sites worldwide, including Ludwigshafen.
“Verbund” essentially means “connected” in German. The approach is designed to connect people, systems and production plants to maximise efficiency and expertise. By designing and building sites in carefully connected ways, it enables by-products from one process to become the raw material for another. This reduces waste, cuts transport and maximises energy efficiency. It’s all about joined-up thinking. The Ludwigshafen heat pumps are a great example of how that could work with reclaimed waste heat.
Going forward - more connectedness means fewer emissions
Our 6 Verbund sites account for more than 50% of our products, so connectedness is crucial to our climate protection strategy going forward. What’s the global impact? In 2020, the re-use of waste heat as energy alone saved around 18.7 million MWh of energy. That’s 3.8 million metric tonnes fewer CO2 emissions. And right now, we’re building a ‘smart’ Verbund site in Zhanjiang, China, which has been designed from the outset to be powered entirely with renewable energy.