Science, industry and politics are joining forces to turn exhaust gases into chemical raw materials — Some 20 million tons of CO2 are at stake — this is the amount of greenhouse gas Germany's steelworks emit into the atmosphere every year. No surprise then that experts see great potential for the material use of waste gases. Can the mammoth project “smokestack chemistry” succeed? The Carbon2Chem conference is campaigning for a cooperation between the different players.
You only live twice — anything James Bond can do, shouldn't be a problem for the chemical industry. Of all things, it is the greenhouse gas and climate killer CO2 that is to be granted a second lease of life — as a raw material for polymers, chemicals or synthetic fuel. Carbon2Chem (C2C) is a project that conducts research into the material use of exhaust gases.
The primary interest is focused on so-called smelter gases, exhaust gases from blast furnace processes in steelworks. In terms of their composition, these gases are very similar to classical synthesis gases — something that, according to the researchers, will enable a large number of reaction routes. The potential is considerable: The widespread use of this technology in the German steel industry alone could help save up to 20 million tons of CO2 — which would correspond to 10 % of the country's entire CO2 emissions.
Accordingly, hopes are high among the participants. “Carbon2Chem could become a model for the whole of Germany and has the potential to turn into a successful concept internationally as well,” explains a confident Dr. Beate Wieland, Head of Department for Research and Technology in the State Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology in North-Rhine/Westphalia.
While work is under way to build a testing facility in Duisburg, Germany, the heads behind the CO2 chemicals project met in Düsseldorf for a first Conference on Material Conversion in the Chemical Industry. Members of the C2C–network come from everywhere from steelworks to the chemical industry and leading institutes, providing concentrated know-how in terms of operation, research and process. The perfect conditions, you might think.
But the summit also highlighted quite how difficult the transformation process is going to be, and what conditions will be required in the first place before the material use of CO2 can evolve into the sustainability driver that is so urgently needed. “The key issue for projects that address big problems is the cooperation between fundamental scientific research and industrial applications,” explains Prof. Ferdi Schlueth from the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research in Muehlheim an der Ruhr, Germany.
A Transformation Process on Par With Digitization
For his colleague Prof. Georg Rosenfeld from Fraunhofer Society in Munich, decarbonization, or more precisely, the decoupling of value creation from fossil carbon sources, is one of the key transformation processes of current times — on a par with digitization.
But Rosenfeld also believes that, while everyone seems to be talking about the promising immense opportunities, decarbonization is a social process that affects the material basis of the economy and will cause significant transfer costs.
Particularly industries with an intensive use of raw materials and energy will need to lead the way, the researcher explains. From the product cycle to the carbon cycle, value creation of the future must build on so-called Closed Carbon Cycles. Here, he believes that it is up to research to develop new system architectures, all the way from the source to new product worlds.
The challenges are huge. How can the inert CO2 molecules be “encouraged” to enter diverse chemical bonds? How can we deal with the fluctuating composition of smelter gases and their high nitrogen content? And can the energy transition provide enough “green” power to make the vision of sustainable smokestack chemistry a reality?
Similarly, hydrogen is required for the synthesis of methanol, higher alcohols or synthetic fuel additives. Although the untreated coke oven gas contains levels of it of up to 61 %, this is not enough for a complete utilization of all available gas. If Carbon2Chem is not to run out of steam, additional hydrogen will be needed. Although this light gas can be produced cost-effectively in a steam reformer process, only sustainable hydrogen is an option for Carbon2Chem, should the process contribute to lower emissions. This means hydrogen produced via electrolysis with “green” electricity.
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