BASF announces four research projects for reducing CO2 emissions

Article by Amanda Doyle

Lab Team Leader Sabine Schuster and Chemical Laboratory Technician Oliver Secosan at BASF changing the catalysts in the new synthesis gas direct conversion plant.

BASF has outlined four R&D activities that will allow the company to achieve CO2-neutral growth until 2030 as part of its carbon management programme.

At a research press conference in Ludwigshafen, Germany, Martin Brudermüller, Chairman of the Board of Executive Directors and Chief Technology Officer, described how BASF is cutting emissions by optimising existing processes, developing new low-emissions processes, and gradually replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources. Since 1990, BASF has reduced its CO2 emissions by 50% despite doubling its product output. Brudermüller said that while they are proud of this achievement, further CO2 efficiency is difficult without the development of new technologies. He described how the company plans to keep CO2 emissions at today’s levels while doubling growth by 2030 through its carbon management programme.

“We think activities have to focus on avoiding CO2 emissions from the start,” said Brudermüller. “You might wonder why we call it carbon management, rather than decarbonisation, a term many people are using. The chemical industry cannot be decarbonised because chemistry means chemical transformation and this is the lifeblood of the chemical industry. Most of the important substances that we use every day consist of a high degree of carbon. We can not and should not do without carbon, but we can manage it.”

Brudermüller also explained how strategies that use CO2 as a raw material can only complement initiatives to reduce emissions and should not be the main research focus.

“Using CO2 on a large basis as a raw material sounds attractive. It would avoid CO2 emissions and thus substitute other carbon sources. This option is only reasonable in very individual cases and cannot make major contributions to the CO2 challenge. CO2 is a very simple but also very stable molecule. Transforming CO2 chemically is extremely energy intensive.”

In many cases, more CO2 would be produced from burning fossil fuels for the energy needed to use CO2 as a feedstock to create industrial chemicals or synthetic fuels. Renewable energy would be required to make the products CO2 neutral, but Brudermüller said renewable energy is better used for more direct purposes such as replacing combustion engines with electric engines in vehicles.

Replacing fossil fuel furnaces with electric

Kiara Kochendörfer, Project Leader for Clean High-Temperature Processes, talked about the development of an electric furnace, called an E-furnace, to replace gas-fired furnaces in steam crackers. Steam crackers need to reach a temperature of around 850oC to process naphtha into olefins and aromatics, but currently this heat comes from fossil fuels. If an E-furnace with renewable energy was used, it could result in reducing emissions by up to 90%. BASF is currently testing materials to determine which metals can withstand the high currents.

“We are breaking new grounds with our E-furnace technology because we’re using high current but low voltage,” said Kochendörfer when explaining that high voltages and high currents are usually used in heavy industry. “We would like to build a new industrial pilot plant for the E-furnace. The goal is to meet all the economic and technical challenges with the pilot plant. The project will require about five years for planning, putting it into operation, and the continuous operability. If the technology is successful it could be transferred to other endothermal reactions.”

Producing hydrogen from methane pyrolysis

Hydrogen is used as a reactant in the chemical industry, for example in the synthesis of ammonia. Hydrogen is most commonly produced via steam reforming of natural gas, which produces 8.85 kgCO2/kgH2. Water electrolysis is an alterative method for producing hydrogen, which doesn’t produce CO2 but is very energy intensive. Andreas Bode, Program Leader for Carbon Management R&D, described how BASF is working on methane pyrolysis as a cleaner method for producing hydrogen that is also energy efficient.

Methane pyrolysis splits the natural gas directly into hydrogen and solid carbon. The solid carbon can be used in steel or aluminium production. If the energy comes from renewables, the hydrogen can be produced on an industrial scale without emissions. BASF’s methane pyrolysis has been successful on a lab scale.

New catalysts for olefin production

Producing olefins from naphtha is very energy-intensive and produces a lot of CO2. However, using methane as a feedstock can reduce the emissions. Nils Bottke, Head of Petrochemical Catalyst Research, talked about how BASF is developing a method for dry reforming of methane, where methane reacts with CO2 to produce a CO-rich syngas. The syngas is then transformed into dimethyl ether which can then be used to produce olefins. BASF has developed a catalyst to successfully produce syngas from methane and CO2. A pilot project is currently running, and it plans to commercialise the catalyst in 2020 in collaboration with Linde. A second catalyst had to be developed to convert the syngas to dimethyl ether. The pilot phase for this catalyst is in preparation, and commercialisation is planned for 2022, also in collaboration with Linde. Dimethyl ether is used directly to make olefins and doesn’t need a catalyst.

Using CO2 to produce sodium acrylate

Sodium acrylate is an important raw material for superabsorbent polymers. Rocco Paciello, Executive Expert for Homogeneous Catalysis, described how BASF is working on using CO2 as a feedstock, along with ethylene, to produce sodium acrylate. Using CO2 as a feedstock to produce sodium acrylate is one of the individual cases where significant CO2 reductions can be achieved.  The method would replace around 30% of the fossil fuels compared to the current propylene-based production method for sodium acrylate. BASF has identified a catalyst for this process.

The four R&D projects discussed at the press conference all have timescales that aim for completion of process design and commercialisation in the mid to late-2020s.

“We know that we are entering new lands here and not everything is going to be crowned by success,” said Brudermüller. “This is just research so we could have a much easier way and spend our research funds on lower risk plans, but this doesn’t fit with a leading chemical company and it doesn’t fit with our corporate purpose to create chemistry for a sustainable future.”

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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