07/24/2020 | Research meets practice
The German chemical industry is – in terms of revenue – the fourth largest in the world and a backbone of the German economy. Accordingly, national and international attention was enormous when DECHEMA published a study in October 2019 commissioned by the VCI (Association of the German Chemical Industry) stating that the German chemical industry could become GHG-neutral by 2050.
The chemical industry has already made tremendous progress over the last decades and at least partially decoupled growth and GHG emissions. But “GHG-neutral”? That seems ambitious, to say the least.
The study “Roadmap Chemie 2050” outlines three different pathways:
Chemical companies continue to use today’s technologies and invest at the current level into maintenance and efficiency of plants. Mechanical recycling of plastics becomes more important. Due to the increasing share of renewable electricity and efficiency gains within the existing chemical processes, greenhouse gas emissions from the chemical industry decrease by 27 % by 2050, with the lion’s share being realised by 2030.
The chemical industry introduces new production technologies for basic chemicals such as ammonia or methanol, but investment is limited by economic and technical restrictions: The maximum available electricity for chemical production is estimated to be 225TWh, around the current renewable electricity generation in Germany, and the investment budget is capped at 1.5 billion euros per year. New technologies are introduced when they are competitive. Compared to the reference pathway, greenhouse gas emissions will decrease significantly, even after 2030 with a total reduction of 61 % by 2050.
This path assumes that neither the available (renewable) electricity nor investment budgets are limited. Any novel technology that reduces greenhouse gas emission is introduced as soon as it is available without concern for competitiveness of the technology. Technological developments are hastened, e.g. by increased public funding. Within these assumptions, the chemical industry will lower its greenhouse gas emissions by almost 100 % by 2050.
The greenhouse-gas-neutral pathway is the most interesting scenario - of course, as it is the most ambitious, but also due to the profound technological analysis it is based on. Based on their current Technological Readiness Level (“TRL”, a TRL=9 meaning ready for industrial implementation on a large scale), different technologies have been assessed for their time to market, their effect on CO2 emissions and their cost competitiveness. From this, a timeline for their introduction has been developed.
The processes considered are those for the production of the highest-volume chemicals chlorine, ammonia, urea, methanol, ethylene, propylene and butadiene as well as BTX. They are the basis for most of the overall product portfolio of the chemical industry, and their production today accounts for 75 % of greenhouse gas emissions.
While some production processes such as the current chlorine-alkaline process are not be expected to be replaced by disruptive technologies, other chemical products may in the future rely on a completely new feedstock base, in which biomass, hydrogen and CO2 via carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) play a dominant role.
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