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Eurochlor 2017/Chlorine Production The (R)Evolution of Chlorine: Ways into the Post-Mercury Era

| Author / Editor: Dominik Stephan* / Dominik Stephan

Europe’s chlorine industry enters the post-mercury era — The shutdown of the last amalgam systems are taken out of service in December 2017, a technological era will come to an end. However, with membrane electrolysis technology underway, it will not mean the extinction of the industry. Plant operators and engineers are moving on on to the next level of the chlorine (r)evolution, balancing sustainability, energy efficiency and safety.

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The origin of species: The membrabe elctrolysis process (right) is the last step in an ongoing process eveolution from mercury cells (left) via the diaphragm processes (middle).
The origin of species: The membrabe elctrolysis process (right) is the last step in an ongoing process eveolution from mercury cells (left) via the diaphragm processes (middle).
(Source: © adrenalinapura/fotolia.com, doethion/fotolia.com, DOC RABE /fotolia.com, [M]-Sahlmüller )

Is this the end for chlorine? The versatile element, valued as a raw material for polymers and pharmaceuticals, yet decried as a toxic element by environmentalists, has gone through challenging times. In March 2017, European chlorine production fell compared with the previous year: 791833 tonnes of chlorine (2016: 802803 tonnes) - a decrease of 1.4%.

To make matters worse, is December the curtain call for the production process with mercury electrodes, also called Castner-Kellner process. This electrolysis process, which utilises a mercury cathode, may be highly selective, but also represents a risk factor for operators, local residents and the environment due to the toxic and environmentally harmful mercury.

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Thus, the EU regulatory authority no longer classifies the mercury process as a "best available technology". The last reprieve for this form of production in the European Union ends on 11th December 2017 – while worldwide mercury plants for chlorine production may operate until 2025 under the umbrella of the Minamata Convention. At the time, about 20% of Europe’s chlorine is produced using mercury, yet these figures are already in strong decline. All experts agree: The clock is ticking!

Nevertheless: There will not be a “chlorine-free” future in the EU. At the 2017 Eurochlor Technology Conference in Berlin, the spectre of plant closures, which had dominated discussions in previous years, played no role anymore. In fact, experts assume that by the end of the year, almost all the remaining 23 mercury systems (as of 2016) will have been converted to diaphragm electrolysis.

Although plant manufacturers and suppliers are hampered by the industry’s reluctance for major investments, there are reasons for cautious optimism. Now, the Eurochlor, the association of the chlorine manufacturers at the European Chemical Industry Association CEFIC, wishes to set the industry on a new course underpinned by three issues: Sustainability, energy supply and security.

Europe's Chlorine Hotspot 2017

At the tenth Eurochlor Conference in Berlin, technology experts, plant operators, engineering specialists and waste managers exchanged views on all aspects of chlorine production, from energy efficiency to the disposal of generated mercury over a total of three days.

360 participants from 34 countries discussed with technology specialists, plant manufacturers, representatives from policy and regulatory authorities and experts in the field of decommissioning and disposal of mercury-containing products. At the adjacent exhibition, over 50 companies presented solutions from fittings, smart process control and equipment and pipes to powerful process pumps.

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