Chlorine Chemistry in the Energy Crisis Can They Still Be Saved? How Hydrogen Could Save Europe's Struggling Chlorine Sector
No gas and still little hope: Chlorine manufacturing is under enormous pressure caused by skyrocketing energy costs. Production in Europe is declining and local competitiveness is at risk, says industry association Euro Chlor. Old-world chlorine is mostly produced as part of integrated chemical value chains. But for how much longer?
Industry associations admonish, threaten and complain — we have become accustomed to this. It is part of the business of the lobbyists to throw themselves into the breach on behalf of their industries, sometimes with exaggerated pathos.
And yet, in 2022, the voices sound different, more dramatic: “Our competitiveness is indeed threatened,” explains Wouter Bleukx, Chairman from 2020 to 2022 of Euro Chlor, the association of chlor-alkali plant operators in Europe (a sector group of the European chemical association Cefic). Are the lights going out at Europe’s industrial plants?
It might come as a surprise that it is chlorine chemistry, of all industries, that is using drastic words to warn of the winter of discontent. After all, chlor-alkali electrolysis is an electrochemical process that does not use fossil fuels — neither natural gas nor naphtha — as raw materials and, given emission-neutral electricity, would also be relatively easy to defossilize.
Nevertheless, dark clouds are brewing. Even though salt, the most important raw material for chlorine production, will not be in short supply in the foreseeable future, electricity already is. And even where power is not scarce, it is expensive. For the first time, imports into the EU are outstripping exports — in terms of sheer product volume as well as product value.
Accordingly, the outgoing Euro Chlor chairman (whose term of office exactly spanned the pandemic of 2020–22) is a little ambivalent at his last Euro Chlor general assembly in September 2022 in Munich. “Chlorine production has recovered after the Covid-19 crisis, and intensive efforts are helping to secure access to energy at competitive costs,” Bleukx explains. While the association has accomplished much despite the pandemic — as evidenced in part by the fact that there has been no chlorine transportation accident in the past decade — 2022 is the first time the industry could conceivably end for good.
Energy is Key to Industrial Production - Not Only for Chlorine
Europe is losing competitiveness at breakneck speed, and there is no end in sight. With the Repower EU program as the latest milestone, the time of raw materials and energy from Russia is running out, while consumers and industry alike continue to wait for real alternatives. No wonder that the Euro Chlor Commission defined energy as the Achilles’ heel of Europe’s industry as early as April 2022. Accordingly, the need for renewable and flexible power supply is enormous.
As expected, the industry rejects the idea of simply cutting back production and thus consumption. EU officials, too, know that chemistry is a crucial and integral part of almost every value chain, and have assured the industry that the ‘masters of molecules’ will be among the last to be disconnected from the grid.
Naturally, however, no one knows how things can and should continue. Fortunately for European chlorine producers, the industry is small-scale and distributed over a wide area. Unlike for example in the U.S., the transport of chlorine in larger volumes hardly plays a role in Europe. The chemical is mostly produced in integrated industrial sites directly for local consumption.
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A total of 62 plants in the EU produced about 9,645,000 metric tons of chlorine in 2021, 4.6 percent more than in the coronavirus year of 2020. The membrane process has become the dominant technology, with 84.5 percent of the market, ahead of diaphragm cells (11.5 percent) and the remaining 4.0 percent covers chlorine-alcoholate production, hydrochloric acid conversion to chlorine, metal production and chlorine and caustic production without hydrogen as a by-product.
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The companies would actually have liked to talk about another issue, since in 2021 Euro Chlor had just given itself a new sustainability program for the next decade. This includes new performance indicators that not only help to make economic and technological aspects measurable, but also include, for example, the sector’s carbon footprint and its contribution to grid load balancing.
One bright spot for the chlorine industry is a very special gas that has so far not played a major role for the sector: Hydrogen is currently on everyone’s agenda. The gas is a by-product of the chlorine electrolysis process, just like caustic soda. The chlorine producers themselves have no use for it, but the molecule could become a coveted resource for the energy industry and as a raw material for the production of chemicals. Every unused ton of hydrogen from chlorine production therefore hurts operators more and more.
Chlorine Production also Means Hydrogen Output
Euro Chlor companies currently produce around three billion cubic meters of hydrogen, of which around 85 percent is currently used, the lion’s share for steam generation (35.7 percent) or for the production of ammonia, aniline, hydrogen peroxide or other chemical building blocks (20.8 percent). It should nevertheless also not be forgotten that around 40,000 metric tons of hydrogen are vented unused into the atmosphere. This is not much in comparison with the total European production of millions of tons of hydrogen, but it is still 40,000 tons of one of the most sought-after molecules in this time of energy transition.
Can chlorine chemistry really become the nucleus of a new electrolysis value creation? The industry is in a favorable position, as it already has years of experience with big electrolysis plants that are significantly larger than the typical container modules of H2 startups. And not only that: Since electrolysis stacks can be operated relatively flexibly with fluctuating amounts of electricity, the industry can contribute to grid stabilization — an aspect that could become even more important in view of fluctuating renewable energy supplies.
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The difficulties are in fact more likely to be on the side of the user industries, which would have to get used to a fluctuating raw material supply — absolutely uncharted territory for thoroughly integrated chemical sites.
New Chairman in Troubled Times: Setting the Course for Chlorine
However, these prospects should concern Wouter Bleukx a little less: At the General Assembly of European Chlorine Chemistry in Munich in September, Johan Van Den Broeck, Executive Vice President Commercial at Vynova, a group in which the former Inovyn chlorine chemistry operations were bundled, was elected as the new Chairman. Over the next two years, the Belgian manager intends to work to make Euro Chlor a sustainable and competitive player in the international chemical industry, and is promoting speaking with one voice among companies.
Energy processes are crucial to this, as is an understanding by policymakers of the sector’s role as a supplier to virtually all value chains. However, all these plans would be waste paper if the blackout of the industry really comes at the turn of the year. Those who want to change need courage — but above all they have to stay alive long enough. n