The chemical industry has transformed itself time and again since its inception. Today, this ability to renew is in demand more than ever. The world is undergoing rapid change – and climate protection is the key issue of the future.
Chemistry represents constant change. Elements bond to one another through molecule reactions, turning into substances and material until they dissipate and bond the elements into new compounds. Constant change is also an inherent part of the chemical industry, which stems from research into these processes and uses it for the wellbeing of mankind. “After the industrial age, the emergence of petrochemicals and globalization, the chemical industry is now entering a new phase of development driven by growing productivity pressures, digitalization and climate change,” says Philipp Conen, Global Industry Manager Chemical Industry at Endress+Hauser.
One of the biggest challenges for the chemical industry in the coming years is its fossil fuels foundation. Most of the products are manufactured from a few base chemicals, which in turn are made almost exclusively from an abundant source of carbon-based fuels: crude oil and natural gas. The manufacturing processes furthermore require enormous amounts of energy, such as heat or electricity, which are also generated from fossil fuels. “Although the chemical industry has improved when it comes to resource utilization, it remains one of the world’s largest producers of greenhouse emissions,” explains Philipp Conen.
Paradigm shift in society
And the situation is expected to worsen. Experts predict that the growing demand for petrochemical products, especially in emerging countries, will increase the chemical industry’s need for raw materials by four percent a year. At the same time, governments have been pushing for a better climate balance following the signing of the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 – among other things, the European Union aims for climate neutrality by 2050.
Even customers are demanding products with a smaller ecological footprint. As a crude oil-based, mass-market product, plastic is the subject of intense criticism around the world. Although it has become indispensable in our daily lives given its durable, lightweight, cost-effective and versatile properties, plastic has nevertheless evolved into one of today’s main concerns thanks to its steadily growing use and society’s throwaway mentality. As a result, plastic has turned into a symbol of the environmental issues the industry is facing.
Not all plastic immediately ends up in the trash, however. Some products are used for decades, especially in industrial environments, construction and transportation. Still, onethird of the plastic produced globally relates to packing material that is often used only once. After it is used, around 90 percent ends up in landfill or in nature, where it does not fully biodegrade and requires decades or even centuries to break down into minuscule parts. In the meantime, more than 60 countries have prohibited disposable and nonreturnable plastics or levied taxes on them. “That can’t be the only solution. We need to develop a more responsible approach to plastics and a new mindset along the entire value chain,” says Philipp Conen.
New ideas for carbon
Against the backdrop of these urgent issues, the chemical industry is on the verge of a profound transformation. “The chemical industry has to be more efficient and environmentally friendly and use fewer resources in the future,” says Philipp Conen. Under the motto ‘feedstock change,’ the industry is currently discussing expanding the raw materials basis. It must find ways to replace crude oil and natural gas with non-fossil carbons or create a carbon loop to make production, and the corresponding products, ‘greener.’ One of these alternative carbon sources could take the form of plant-based biomass. “In order to exploit this potential, there needs to be more investment in white biotechnology,” says Philipp Conen. White biotechnology uses microorganisms and enzymes to produce feedstocks and fine chemicals from renewable sources through fermentation or biocatalysis. Bioplastics based on lactic acid, starch or cellulose are already being produced today.
Global Industry Manager
Philipp Conen (42) has been coordinating the Endress+Hauser worldwide network of chemical industry experts since 2014. Conen, a trained beer brewer with a degree in bioprocess engineering, has been working for the Group for nine years.
Is a closed-loop economy the answer?
A further option is the use of chemical recycling as a new foundation for a closedloop economy, an idea that has been gaining importance for some time now. This process involves converting plastic waste into synthetic gases or oils through pyrolysis, and then feeding them back into the chemical industry production networks at the head of the value chain. “This method allows the reuse of mixed or contaminated plastics that are mechanically non-recyclable and therefore end up in incinerators or landfill,” says Philipp Conen. “Mechanical recycling still has room for improvement, however. It has, meanwhile, reached its limits because the quality of the recycled product depends heavily on the purity of the input material.”
Even CO2 emissions are gradually attracting attention as a carbon source. “Since carbon dioxide is at the end of the reaction chain from a chemical standpoint, it’s inert and low energy,” says Philipp Conen. That means researchers have to find a way to mobilize CO2, such as with suitable catalyzers. In some cases, large amounts of energy are also required. One opportunity for developing a sustainable process is referred to as Power to Gas, a technology that uses surplus wind and solar energy to create climate-neutral hydrogen from water via electrolysis.
The chemical industry requires large quantities of this element as a reaction partner in the manufacture of feedstocks, for example in combination with nitrogen for ammonia synthesis. And when hydrogen reacts with CO2, which can be filtered from the air on a large scale with new technologies, this leads to methane, which can be further processed into fuels or plastics, for instance. Regardless of which paths the industry decides to take, “These innovations will call for large investments in process technology and basic research,” says Philipp Conen.
Innovative business models have to be developed and costeffective processes have to be designed. What can help in this area is advanced process analysis, not to mention the wide range of opportunities afforded by digitalization. “In order to reach the next level of productivity and to successfully shape the transformation, both of these issues are decisive for the chemical industry,” says Philipp Conen. The global industry manager has no doubt that this transformation will be just as successful as those in the past. “Although the chemical industry has to observe numerous safety aspects, it’s demonstrating a high degree of openness toward changes and new technologies.”