Profits from Industrial Smokestacks

The global environmental focus is on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But a forward-looking initiative from the Fraunhofer Institute and steel manufacturer thyssenkrupp is investigating how to use CO2 as a raw material.

August 2021

Carbon2Chem is one of a handful of research projects currently underway in Germany that aim to capture otherwise harmful, industrial, gaseous emissions and convert them into high-value chemicals. Carbon dioxide (CO2) that would usually be released into the atmosphere as waste is a potentially valuable raw material that has a range of applications.

“It’s actually more of a systems approach than a single technology,” explains Professor Görge Deerberg, deputy director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety, and Energy Technology (UMSICHT). “We have some applications right now in the lab and in our pilot plant.”

Supported by the national government and no less than 17 commercial and research partners, Carbon2Chem is a prime example of the potential for companies with solutions to help heavy industry move toward a more environmentally friendly future. The project’s main target is to capture and clean CO2 emissions from industries ranging from steelmaking and concrete production to waste incineration.

The steel industry alone creates about 20 million tons of gaseous emissions every year, according to the German Ministry of Education and Research. That’s the equivalent of 10 percent of the combined emissions from all German industrial and manufacturing processes. Deerberg and his team have been working with a number of German companies on the pilot project in Duisburg since 2019, although the project first launched in 2016. The research group is using a mill from German steelmaker thyssenkrupp to test out its ideas in a real, industrial setting.

© Getty Images

Powered by public millions

Carbon2Chem is now in its second phase, which runs through 2024 and looks at how its ideas can be commercialized. The Ministry of Education and Research is backing the second stage with a EUR 75 million subsidy after supporting the first phase with a EUR 60 million grant. An additional private sector investment of EUR 1 billion will also be needed before the concept reaches commercial viability.

“We’re already seeing global interest in this technology,” thyssenkrupp CFO Klaus Keysberg said at the announcement of the second subsidy. “By extending the public support, the collaborative project can now be developed up to commercial viability. We want to start using Carbon2Chem in just a few years’ time.”

Emissions from steel production also contain nitrogen and hydrogen as well as carbon dioxide. All can be captured and converted into the chemical precursors needed to produce substances like methanol or ammonia. In this way, a resource that would otherwise “go up in smoke” through chimneys can be used to make fuels, fertilizers and plastics, as initial trials have shown.

The Bottom Line

Carbon dioxide could soon partially replace crude oil and be used as a raw material to produce fuels and high-value chemicals. Researchers in Germany are working on developing economically viable catalytic processes to do so.

Link to green hydrogen

Hydrogen (H2), generated via electrolysis, is needed to produce some valuable chemicals from CO2, so thyssenkrupp has built an electrolysis pilot plant next to the Duisburg steel mill. The plant produces hydrogen from water primarily powered by wind energy. The hydrogen is not only used in the Carbon2Chem research but also in an independent project to introduce this “green hydrogen” as a substitute for H2 produced from natural gas by steam reforming in steel production.

The process is technologically challenging, however, and still requires additional research and testing. Emissions must first be captured and then separated and cleaned before they can be processed into useful chemicals. The capture itself requires extra energy, which researchers hope will also come from renewable resources. Traditionally, it’s been more economical for heavy industry to use fossil fuels, but that is changing as carbon taxes become more prevalent and environmental technologies more advanced.

“At the moment, crude oil and natural gas are simply still far too cheap, and the subsequent environmental costs of using crude oil and natural gas aren’t factored in at all,” says Deerberg. “The new technology becomes interesting economically the moment carbon emissions are associated with costs.”

“The Right Chemistry”

Interview with Professor Görge Deerberg, deputy director of the Fraunhofer UMSICHT research institute

What technological hurdles still need to be overcome before Carbon2Chem can be integrated into heavy industry?

Basically, three essential aspects play a big role. The first is the provision and purification of the corresponding raw material gases. Of course, they can’t be used directly to make chemicals. First, they have to be purified and conditioned. In other words, the right conditions have to be set up so that they can be used in a chemical stage. This is a technological issue that can be addressed with gas purification and appropriate processes. Another aspect that plays a major role here is synthesis: the catalytic processes that then convert this gas into marketable products.

Can you tell us more about this synthesiz­ing process?

In principle, these processes already exist on a large scale. That’s why we’re quite confident that we’ll be able to implement our ideas in a very short time. But you also have to adapt these new gases to a new raw materials basis. Many of the processes we are talking about here operate on a natural gas basis today, and we now have to switch over to a CO2 basis, indeed to a carbon mixture. That’s what comes, for example, from the steel or cement plant. And this is still a technical and logical challenge: manufacturing economical and high-quality products.

And the third aspect you mentioned?

The third aspect are the dynamics. Right now, chemical production goes on continuously and statically. That is, it always runs the same around the clock because fuel, i.e. natural gas or crude oil, is continuously available. In our process that will change. Carbon dioxide won’t always be available in the same quantity, nor will it always be of the same quality. The processes have to be adapted accordingly to deal with these dynamics and this volatility. Those are the scientific and technical challenges. And a final challenge is, of course, that sufficient renewable energy has to be available to run these processes. Because if we do this with a conventional carbon-based or fossil energy supply, then nothing is actually gained in the end.

Photo: Roman Studio

Plenty of industrial opportunities

Although the partners are currently focused on the one steel plant in Duisburg, experts say about 50 steel-producing facilities around the world could benefit from the technology as it matures and becomes more widespread over the next 15 years. Furthermore, it could be adapted for use in other types of plants. So Carbon2Chem could become yet another environmental technology that Germany exports around the world.

The Carbon2Chem process does create some new hurdles for heavy industry. Steel producers traditionally use the combustible part of emissions from their furnaces in order to produce energy for own processes. Nonetheless, energy experts agree that using combustible emissions for energy generation is inefficient, however economical it might appear in the short term.

In the context of a holistic life-cycle assessment, if companies are subject to a carbon dioxide tax at some point in the near future, it may become more profitable for them to use the combustible exhaust gases as a raw material for fuels and chemicals. So, these sorts of technologies are likely to attract more attention from investors, both domestic and foreign, in the years to come.