Industry transformation: exit from petrochemicals

Industry transformation: exit from petrochemicals

View of Covestro’s pilot plant

Photo: Covestro/Marcus Müller-Saran

“The vision of plastic from plants is within reach,” promises the materials manufacturer Covestro. The former plastics division of the Bayer Group, now itself represented in the DAX, put the world’s first pilot plant for the production of bio-based aniline into operation on Tuesday. “We want to show that this new process works on a large scale,” said Chief Technology Officer Thorsten Dreier at the opening ceremony in the Leverkusen Chemical Park.

Aniline is an important intermediate product in the chemical industry. The slightly oily liquid with a sweet smell is needed for the production of paints, medicines, fibers and plastics. With a capacity of more than one million tons per year and around 15 percent market share, Covestro is one of the leading producers worldwide. The company uses it as a precursor for materials needed to produce hard polyurethane foams for insulating buildings and cooling devices.

Aniline has been produced petrochemically from benzene, a raw material based on petroleum, for 150 years. The innovative method using biomass was developed as part of a cooperation project funded by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture that has been running for over ten years. Aniline is obtained from sugar-containing plants such as fodder corn, straw or wood. Research was also carried out into how this could be applied on an industrial scale.

Covestro is not the only one active. The chemical-pharmaceutical industry in Germany wants to become climate neutral by 2045, Covestro by 2035. A major challenge: The industry is the largest CO22-Emitted in Europe, which is due on the one hand to the extremely high energy requirements and, on the other hand, to the fact that around 90 percent of all chemical products contain carbon that comes from crude oil, natural gas or coal. The switch to biomass is therefore a building block in the strategy of “defossilization,” as Walter Leitner from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Mülheim an der Ruhr puts it. Carbon is still needed, but from other sources. Biotechnological processes will play a major role in the future, but there is a great need for research, said Leitner at the inauguration of the pilot plant.

The German chemical industry, which also wants to use carbon from exhaust gases or air on a large scale in the future, estimates its future demand for biomass alone to be up to 28 million tons per year. Currently there are around 2 million tons, a good ten percent of the raw materials for material use. The industry itself praises the fact that biomass is a renewable raw material, unlike petroleum. However, when it comes to the amount required, conflicts with nutrition are foreseeable, which cannot be solved simply by only using biomass, such as wood or plant waste, which is not suitable for food.

“A technological change in production will not be enough to achieve the net zero goals,” writes Paolo Gabrielli, an expert in process engineering, in ETH Zurich’s “Future Blog”. Even in view of the strong increase in demand for plastic products predicted worldwide, one must “consistently focus on a circular economy”: with long-lasting and recyclable products. Today only around 15 percent of plastic waste is recycled, of which almost half ends up incinerated either because the specific type of plastic cannot be recycled or because the quality is too poor.

While companies like Covestro are quite understanding on this issue, Gabrielli’s other demand is not so popular to hear: “We also have to reduce the demand for chemical products.” Ultimately, the transformation towards sustainability is also about profit interests. Innovative process technologies have to pay off, which is the case, among other things, when the prices for crude oil and natural gas remain high. This also stimulates innovations like in Leverkusen. It is therefore more than a technical question whether the bio-aniline process will be successfully brought to market and whether the entire production will be converted.

Politicians are of course pleased that the system was built at the headquarters in Leverkusen. This is a “clear signal for a sustainable industrial location in North Rhine-Westphalia,” said State Economics Minister Mona Neubaur (Greens). She promised: “We should do everything we can to ensure that you stay.” Covestro board member Dreier insisted on presenting one of the company’s wish lists at the event: competitive energy, government investments in digitalization and infrastructure, and quick approval processes.

The biggest topic in the industry for years has been the future “Chemistry 4.0,” which relies on digitalization, resource efficiency and sustainability right down to the supply chains. Migration from Germany to low-wage countries with low environmental standards and low taxes is not the issue. These are locations that promote innovations such as the new bio-aniline process. But this also shows that the transformation is only in its infancy.

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