The chemical industry potentially can vastly decrease energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with the help of game-changing technology and strong support from policymakers, says a roadmap published in June. "Energy and GHG Reductions in the Chemical Industry via Catalytic Processes" was jointly developed by the International Energy Agency (IEA), Paris, France, the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), Brussels, Belgium, and the German Society for Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology (Dechema), Frankfurt, Germany.
The roadmap focuses on the role of catalytic processes in cutting energy use and GHG emissions in the chemical industry — and demonstrates how savings of up to 13 eJ (exajoules) could be made by 2050. This is equivalent to the current annual primary energy use of Germany.
The roadmap is the second phase of a three-part process that originally kicked off with a 2009 McKinsey study sponsored by the ICCA. "Earlier top-down estimates of improvement potential of reducing energy and GHGs, such as the McKinsey study, suggested that catalysis could play a key role in reducing energy and GHGs, but were vague as to how this could be accomplished. This roadmap attempts an innovative combination of bottom-up data collection and top-down evaluation," explains Claus Beckmann, head of energy and climate policy, communications and government, for BASF, Lugwigshafen, Germany. Beckmann was one of four co-chairs on the core team responsible for the roadmap.
This two-pronged approach involved: studying bottom-up technical improvements, implementation strategies, and emerging and game-changing technologies; and top-down global scenarios using country-submitted data covering factors such as potential economic growth.
To gather its data, the team used market research information, discussions with licensors, publicly available literature, and responses to questionnaires about the top 40 energy-consuming chemical processes sent to chemical and catalyst manufacturers as well as academics.
"Many of our stakeholders, including policymakers, are very surprised to learn that while the chemical industry is the biggest industrial energy user, it is also a major contributor to cutting GHGs. This was a fact that we wanted to explain to a broader audience — about exactly what the chemical industry can and cannot do," says Russel Mills, global director for energy and climate change policy, for Dow, Geneva, Switzerland. Mills also was a co-chair of the core team while his colleague Ed Rightor, director, strategic projects, at Dow in Midland, Mich., was the company's technical expert on the team and also its leader.
The roadmap offers a number of crucial conclusions:
• the manufacture of 18 products (among thousands) accounts for 80% of energy demand in the chemical industry and 75% of GHG emissions;
• catalyst and related process improvements could reduce energy intensity for these products by 20–40% as a whole by 2050 if all the measures in the roadmap were acted upon. In absolute terms, such improvements could save as much as 13 eJ and 1 gigatonne (gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2050 versus a "business-as-usual" scenario;
• in the short-to-medium term (i.e., to 2025), steady progress in implementing incremental improvements and deploying best practice technologies (BPTs) could provide substantial energy savings and emissions reductions compared to business as usual;
• achieving deeper cuts in energy consumption and emissions will require developing and deploying emerging technologies that exceed the capacity of current BPTs;
• making a step change in the sector's energy consumption and GHG emissions depends upon development of game-changing technologies, such as sustainable biomass feedstocks and hydrogen from renewable energy sources, which haven't yet reached commercial maturity;
• and, therefore, long-term investment and support for research and development (R&D) to enable innovation is warranted to continue making advances in new technologies.
However, the roadmap notes that getting onto the right path to achieve these goals requires immediate effort by all stakeholders, both individually and jointly, to develop long-term strategies and corresponding mechanisms to spur action and measure progress.
For example, it calls on policymakers to develop and implement policies to more highly reward energy-efficiency investments and remove barriers for new investments, as well as to create a long-term policy framework that encourages investments to reinvigorate catalyst/process improvement and R&D for high-energy-consuming processes.
The roadmap also calls on policymakers to introduce enabling policies for best practices in regions where new facilities are built, especially in developing countries, and to eliminate energy subsidies that undermine use of more-energy-efficient technology. In the case of BPTs, overcoming barriers to deployment, including high capital costs, replacement challenges and competing investments, may demand policy measures, it says.
It also urges the chemical industry to identify top catalyst/process-related opportunities and accelerate R&D and capital investments that improve energy efficiency. The industry also should facilitate R&D on game-changers with partners to lower barriers and operating costs, and promote global and regional co-operation on reducing energy and emissions via industry associations.
In addition, the roadmap calls upon academia and research organizations to undertake or stimulate university and national laboratory research on large-volume/high-energy-use processes, and to take action with industry leaders to identify top prospects for reducing technical barriers.
Finally, it points to the role financial institutions should play — urging such institutions to work together with the chemical industry to better understand changes in funding requirements of a low-carbon chemical sector and the funding opportunities of such a transition.
"Concerted, long-term action of all stakeholders is critical to realizing the vision and impacts described in this roadmap. Governments can help create a favorable environment by creating a long-term policy framework that encourages investments in R&D," notes Beckmann.
"They can also help by publicizing the report and talking about it: showing that there is real engagement at the government level. This is one of the reasons for our engagement with policymakers — and why the roadmap itself is only 60 pages long. The deep technical detail used to create it is contained in ten separate annexes," adds Mills.
FOUR SPECIFIC TARGETS
Among large-volume chemicals, four — olefins, ammonia, BTX aromatics (benzene, toluene, xylenes) and methanol — represent about 80% of energy demand. The roadmap specifically targets these four because all are or can be produced through catalytic processes (Figure 1).
The roadmap outlines how incremental improvements such as better heat integration and catalyst tweaks can reduce energy demand of the four and then moves on to the benefits of adopting BPTs such as better catalysts and separation technologies.
"The biggest opportunities are obviously new builds; this means primarily the Gulf Coast in the U.S., driven by shale oil and gas developments, the Gulf region, and Asia — especially China. In each case, we can tackle two things in parallel: we can drive efficiency, and we can help with decisions over BPTs. One of the most obvious ones mentioned in the report is ammonia. If more gas and less coal was used as a feedstock it would be very beneficial from an emissions point of view. For countries with large coal reserves, of course, the arguments are not straightforward — which is why interactions with intergovernmental bodies such as the IEA is helpful in discussing all the alternatives that they could use," explains Mills.
The roadmap then turns to the game-changers, defined as processes that essentially re-invent the way something is done. Again particularly for the benefit of policymakers, it outlines the role of catalysis in the Haber-Bosch ammonia process. Then it moves on to catalysts' more recent involvement in new processes to improve hydrogen generation for steam methane reformers, upgrade bio-oils and light alkanes, synthesize aromatics from lignin and directly synthesize hydrogen peroxide from hydrogen and oxygen.
Noting there are many such "dream reactions" and they will need a long time to develop fully, the roadmap says two potential game-changers warrant specific mention: use of hydrogen from renewable energy sources to produce ammonia and methanol, and use of biomass as feedstock.
Hydrogen generation is one of the largest energy-consuming steps in the production of ammonia and methanol. Using hydrogen from renewable energy sources potentially could reduce the fossil-fuel use and GHG footprint of these processes significantly. Catalysis could enable efficient hydrogen generation, particularly via techniques such as photocatalysis or photovoltaic-assisted water electrolysis.
According to the roadmap, this option warrants further investigation along three lines: production of hydrogen from electrolytic water cleavage using electricity from renewable sources; ammonia synthesis from hydrogen and nitrogen, omitting steam reforming or water-gas shift from gas or coal; and methanol synthesis from hydrogen with either coal or carbon dioxide as the carbon source.
"Breakthroughs will be required for the generation of hydrogen at significantly lower energy demand and for providing significant excess hydrogen from renewable energy sources for this game-changer to become a realistic option in the future," notes the roadmap.
Like the hydrogen game-changer, wide use of bio-based routes for large-scale chemicals production depends upon significant improvement in overall energy consumption and cost. In addition, there's growing concern about the amount of arable land required for a high-volume bio-based chemical feedstock infrastructure, and potential competition with food production. Additional research clearly is needed, says the roadmap.
The long-term nature of the work to be carried forward warrants establishing high-level milestones (Figure 2), while the substantial technical hurdles and high investment costs (particularly for areas with a high return-on-investment threshhold) create a need for collective effort on the part of all stakeholders including academia, research institutes and industrial partners. Governments must play an enabling role by establishing policies to encourage the necessary long-term collaborations and investments, stresses the roadmap.
"Game-changers such as the use of biomass or hydrogen as feedstock could theoretically yield additional reductions in GHGs, but would increase energy use and require huge investments to develop, tackle technical hurdles and lower operational costs. Commercial maturity is not reached. So it is obvious that further research and development to enable innovation in these technologies is needed in the future," Beckmann concludes.
Mills agrees: "The Roadmap makes it clear that we won't get close to the bigger targets without game-changers. Equally these will take 10–20 years to materialize — and even then, you will still need both technical breakthrough and political support. The massively increased amount of agricultural land needed for biomass is just one example of challenges being faced. For biomass and hydrogen, the political challenges are every bit as demanding as the technological ones. This is one of the reasons that we have intentionally tried not to spell out in great detail how we would get to the game-changers."
Phase Three of the energy efficiency drive, just started, focuses on disseminating the roadmap. "We are very consciously making this a two-way process; rather than telling people what to do, we are presenting alternatives and engaging in dialogue," notes Mills. This approach, he says, was very well received at a recent meeting in China.
"We have also visited the Gulf region. Five years ago, the concept of energy efficiency — and, therefore, any reduction in oil and gas consumption by customers — would have been considered an economic threat. That perception is different today and resource efficiency as a concept has been fundamentally embraced, but it always has to be a two-way process in order to work," he adds.
He also is pleased with the response from Brazil, where industry has already paid for the roadmap to be translated in Portuguese. "It is a very reassuring sign that they are taking the report very seriously. Local language is key to convey the information in the roadmap to local policymakers. On our next visit to China later this year it will be interesting to see what plans they have with regards to translation into local dialects, too."
Efforts for the rest of this year and all of 2014 will focus on global outreach to raise awareness of the existing opportunities such as BPTs cited in the roadmap, and also to clarify interest in further work — including selected game-changers. This also involves assigning particular responsibilities for such work to specific companies in major chemical-producing regions around the world. Mills says it's currently too early in the process to name names.
Overall, Mills gives the impression of great confidence in the roadmap process. "I am upbeat, but with the proviso of timing. It won't be a fast process," he acknowledges.
The roadmap is available free at: www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/Chemical_Roadmap_2013_Final_WEB.pdf
The ten annexes, covering topics such as process routes for propylene oxide, hydrogen option, biomass-based process routes, refineries, and research needs, are available from: www.iea.org/media/freepublications/technologyroadmaps/Chemical_Roadmap_2013_Annexes_FinalforWEB(2).pdf
Sean Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You cam e-mail him at email@example.com.