An industrial area on the edge of a settlement near Bergheim west of Cologne: grouped around a substation, a forest of power poles looms on the horizon. The soft murmur of the motorway drifts over to three silver barrels rising up as tall as houses here in the flat landscape.
“These are the digesters of the Paffendorf biogas plant. It is operated by one of our cooperation partners, RWE AG,” explains Prof. Rüdiger-A. Eichel, Director of the Institute of Energy and Climate Research (IEK-9). In the towers, bacteria convert plant residues into a mixture that consists largely of energy-rich biomethane. It can be used to generate electricity and heat very efficiently with the help of a high-temperature fuel cell. This produces much less CO2 than when electricity is generated from lignite – an important step towards climate-friendly energy production. However, the Jülich physicist envisions even more for the plant: the dawn of a climate-friendly chemical industry.
“Chemistry is a key industry for the Rhineland region area,” says the researcher. “Almost half of the total value added in this region is generated by the chemical industry. Around 48,000 people earn their daily bread in this sector. Our task is to secure these jobs today to ensure them for the future.”
From exhaust gas to raw material
The sector is increasingly coming under pressure: it currently still covers its demand for energy and raw materials from the fossil sources of coal and oil. But that will be over in the foreseeable future. Germany wants to massively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the combustion of fossil raw materials and become climate neutral by 2045. “We will only succeed in this if we can feed part of the most important greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, into a cycle – that is, if we reuse the CO2 produced by industrial processes as a raw material for other processes,” Eichel argues.
The iNEW project, which is funded as part of the Federal Government’s immediate action programme for structural change and coordinated by Jülich, is researching this. “We are developing a toolbox for recycling carbon dioxide,” says Rüdiger-A. Eichel.
The German abbreviation iNEW stands for “incubator for sustainable electrochemical value added”. The idea behind it: special electrolysis cells use electricity from renewable sources to convert CO2 and water into a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This synthesis gas has so far been obtained through the reaction of water vapour with natural gas, crude oil or coal. It serves the chemical industry as a starting material for a broad range of products such as hydrocarbons and alcohols. “We have also already developed electrolysis cells that not only supply synthesis gas, but immediately important platform chemicals such as ethylene or formic acid. These can then be refined into high-quality products, for example for the pharmaceutical or coatings industry,” explains the researcher.
The biogas plant in Paffendorf could supply the raw material CO2. For this purpose, the gas that is produced there as a waste product during the conversion of biomethane into electricity must be captured and processed further in special electrolysis cells. The advantage of this over CO2 from lignite-fired power plants: it is a high-purity gas and, therefore, does not have to be extracted from exhaust gases contaminated with other substances.
However, the CO2 could also come from other sources where emissions of the greenhouse gas cannot be avoided and where the CO2 is not as contaminated: from cement plants or waste incineration plants. “Our vision is for the Rhineland region to be the first of the world’s approximately 50 major coal regions to build a fully climate-neutral chemical industry that does not need any fossil raw materials at all,” says Rüdiger-A. Eichel. To achieve this, it is necessary to train and develop competent employees at an early stage. Schools for young talent and summer academies are therefore an integral part of iNEW, says the Jülich researcher: “One thing’s for sure: The skilled workers we need for tomorrow’s change are still attending school today.”