SIX companies with European petrochemical operations have established a consortium that will jointly investigate naphtha or gas steam crackers that use renewable electricity instead of fossil fuels. They aim to produce base chemicals whilst significantly reducing carbon emissions.
Base chemicals, which include ethylene, propylene, butadiene, and BTX (ie mixtures of benzene, toluene, and the three xylene isomers), are produced by steam crackers and are primarily used in plastics production. According to the consortium, “polymers will always be needed, especially in emerging, renewable energy-related technologies,” where they are crucial for technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries.
The Cracker of the Future Consortium, composed of BASF, Borealis, BP, LyondellBasell, SABIC, and Total, will invest in research and development and knowledge sharing to assess a transition to renewable electricity. The consortium is chaired by the Brightlands Chemelot Campus in The Netherlands, which focuses on the development of smart materials and sustainable chemical production processes.
The consortium says steam crackers represent “the principal opportunity” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from chemical production. One option the consortium is considering is using electricity to heat cracking furnaces, rather than fossil fuels. By using electricity from renewable sources, cracker emissions could be reduced significantly.
Electricity-based cracker technology would help the sector to maintain sustainable operations whilst reducing the carbon footprints of its products. However, there are challenges that must be met to allow for this.
The key challenges associated with developing electricity-based cracker technology include, ensuring the technological and economic feasibility of the chosen solution compared to current processes, achieving successful integration into a low-carbon value chain, and implementing the solution in time to meet policy targets.
With the agreement signed, the consortium members have started to explore and screen technical options. If a solution is identified, the companies will decide whether to pursue joint development project(s), including research and development activities that could include a demonstrator for proof of concept in the case of base chemicals.
According to Lia Voermans, Director of Innovation and Strategy at Brightlands, the companies will choose technologies for further pursuit before the end of the year.
The consortium plans to have a pilot low-carbon cracker operational by 2030, and to achieve widespread commercial production by 2050.
The project funding will be a public cooperation, said Voermans, with funds to be provided by industry and national and European governments. The consortium is currently in partnership talks with the European Commission.
Voermans said that the industry recognises the need for an energy transition to allow the chemical industry continue to run and make it “future-proof”. The project could help the chemical industry achieve the innovation it needs to stay competitive in the future.
Bert Kip, CEO of Brightlands Chemelot, said: “This is a unique collaboration that aims to reduce our industry’s carbon footprint for the betterment of society as a whole.”
“It demonstrates the commitment of our industry to collectively seek technological solutions to minimise greenhouse gas emissions from our operations. We are proud to have taken this first step together and look forward to the successes that lie ahead.”
The Trilateral Strategy for Chemical Industry was created by the North Rhine-Westphalian, Flemish, and Dutch Ministries of Economic Affairs, as well as industry associations in the countries. It aims to boost sustainability of the chemical sector and three “Tables” – Energy, Infrastructure, and Innovation – were set up to elaborate the strategy.
According to Cracker of the Future, the region was a “logical” choice as the European start point as combined, it is the largest chemical cluster in the world, with an annual revenue of €180bn (US$159.5bn) and 350,000 jobs.
The Cracker of the Future Consortium companies are located in Flanders, Belgium; North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany; and, the Netherlands ie the Trilateral Region. The collaboration is a direct result of the strategy.
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