Article by Lucien Joppen

The driver for the industry sector, including the chemical industry, to slash CO2-emissions is mainly a political one. In 2011, the European Commission published its energy strategy for 2050 with a roadmap for the next 40 years. The goal? To reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Europe by 80 to 95 per cent below the 1990 level. Ultimately, the European economy should be a low-carbon and environmental- friendly one and not a fossil fuel guzzling and CO2 spewing ‘monster’.

The role of the chemical industry in the aforementioned goals shouldn’t be underestimated. As a key supplier to many sectors – plastics, automotive, electronics, construction etc. – chemical companies are able to lower significantly the CO2-footprint of intermediates and ultimately end products. For example, the development of materials which enable car manufacturers to lighten their vehicles, thereby lowering fuel consumption. Another example is better insulation materials for construction.

As for the chemical industry, the impact on the CO2 footprint of the European industry is huge. In terms of energy consumption, the chemical sector uses 19 per cent of the total industry consumption (source: Cefic) The good news is that the sector has managed in the last 25 odd years to decouple its energy consumption from its production, reducing in a reduction of energy use (-22 per cent) and its GHG emissions (-59 per cent) while increasing its production (+ 78 per cent).

Gas fermentation

The above-mentioned energy reduction efforts from the chemical industry have been impressive. However, with the ambitious goals for 2050 in mind, it is clear that incremental changes/innovations are insufficient to reach these goals. Also, various sectors need a more integrated approach by which companies or company clusters work together, for example by using CO2 as a feed stock for energy and/or material use.
A good example of both routes is the collaboration between Arcelor Mittal (see photo) and Lanzatech in Gent, Belgium. Both companies are planning to build a production facility by which CO2 – as a byproduct from steel production – is fermented by a proprietary organism, developed by Lanzatech, into bio-ethanol. In 2019, Arcelor plans to produce 65,000 tons of bio-ethanol which can be used as a fuel or a building block for (bio) plastics. A perfect example of a synergy between energy intensive industries which would turn a waste/byproduct into more valuable commodities or specialties. Typically, these initiatives require large investments, mainly in terms of infrastructure but also in R&D, for example in scaling up processes such as the aforementioned gas fermentation.

Supply demand issues

Financing is one of the main hurdles for the chemical industry – or any industry for that matter – to drastically reduce its CO2 foot print. Most companies are willing to invest in new assets, providing these will have a return on investment within a year or a year and a half at the most. This will not be the case for large scale, innovative routes which would put a serious dent in a company’s CO2 production. Another obstacle mentioned in the Dechema-report Low carbon energy and feed stock for the European chemical industry (2017), is the availability of low carbon (renewable) energy and feed stock. 
In order for the chemical industry to reduce its use of fossil energy/feed stock, there should be a supply chain which ensures a continuous supply of sustainable and affordable feed stock (for example biomass). It remains to be seen whether there will be sufficient supply to cater to a future demand from the chemical industry in its route towards ‘carbon neutrality’. According to the Dechemareport, the low carbon capacities anticipated by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2050 would not suffice given the ambitions of the chemical industry and other sectors.

Game changers

The availability or the supply side of renewable energy is outside the control of the chemical industry. This is very much a political issue by which national or regional governments are almost required to (co-)invest or subsidize the use of renewable energy which in several cases cannot compete (yet) with fossil resources. For example in the Netherlands, the government stimulates the use of biomass (wood pellets etc.) for energy generation. Only with the government’s financial support, the energy company RWE was able to transform a 100 per cent coal fired plant into a so-called Biopark in which half of the electricity and heat will be produced from biomass (see box Beyond Energy below).
What remains for the industry or industry clusters are routes/technologies that are inside their control span and also have the potential to be game changers in terms of energy use and subsequent CO2 reduction. A – progressive – electrification of the chemical industry could be such a technology.


This route has been identified by the Dutch chemical sector as a way to cut CO2 emissions in a significant way. Under the name VoltaChem, a public private consortium consisting of Dutch research institutes such as TNO and ECN and large companies such as Arkema, various pathways are being investigated. There are three routes: Power to chemicals, power to hydrogen and power to heat.
“The potential of electricity for the chemical sector is huge,” Martijn de Graaff (TNO) says. De Graaff, responsible for business development within VoltaChem, adds: “heat generation accounts for a major part of the energy consumption of the chemical sector. For the time being, natural gas is the main source. Given the goals in the terms of CO2 reduction, this will shift towards more sustainable energy sources such as electricity. For the time being, natural gas is cheaper. These dynamics are bound to change, especially when CO2 taxation will be higher.”

The gradual replacement of natural gas by other sources requires an approach which involves all relevant players in the supply chain, De Graaff stresses. A hybrid infrastructure needs to be developed that would facilitate a reliable energy supply to its end users. Within VoltaChem research is being conducted on high-temperature compression heat pumps, the combination with heat and cold storage and the use of renewable electricity as a source to upgrade heat and steam.
It speaks for itself that this research and adaptations to the infrastructure require significant investments for the private sector. As the competitive climate is already harsh, public investment is needed for leverage and derisking. Otherwise, private commitment would be hard to find.

Box: Beyond energy, towards chemicals

RWE’s Biopark Amer in the south of the Netherlands is a telling but also highly debated example of the energy transition. Half of RWE’s production capacity is accounted for by biomass, ie wood pellets from overseas. The advantage: less coal, the disadvantage: woody biomass that has to ‘travel’’ for thousands of miles. In the Dutch press, several organizations claimed that biomass would lead to a higher CO2 foot print than coal and that it also would lead to deforestation. The crux seems to be the origin of the biomass. If this is certifiable sustainable (rest/by products etc.) these types would be acceptable. On the other hand, if suppliers would use less sustainable wood (stimulated by higher price levels due to government subsidies), then this business model would be less environmentally friendly.
From an economic standpoint, energy generation from biomass would be not possible under current conditions. Once government support has been dismantled, RWE will be required to look beyond energy and focus on other uses, such as chemicals and/or materials. Possible routes are the use of C5 and C6 sugars and/or lignin towards chemical building blocks, such as benzene, toluene or xylene. Preferably functional bio-aromatics which would be able to enhance certain functionalities in end products. In other words, the transformation from a power station to an integrated bio-refinery.

Box: Smart CO2 grid hub

The storage and potential use of CO2 on a large scale requires the establishment of new infrastructures or grids. In the Netherlands, a consortium of over 25 businesses, organizations, and government authorities are planning to construct such a grid. The goal is to recapture CO2 emitted by enterprises, and to reuse it for alternative ends such as industrial processes, raw materials for the (chemical) industry, fertilizers used in horticulture, or algae cultivation.

The signatories aim to reuse at least eight million tonnes of CO2 on an annual basis within a fifteenyear time span. This amounts to approximately five per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Apart from this initiative, the combined effort to reduce CO2 emissions at the factory gate remains crucial in achieving the Netherlands’ targets for CO2 reduction in the near future.

A cross sectoral approach would lead to drastic energy savings, especially if energy intensive sectors such as the chemical and steel industry work together.

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