Places of change
Green chemistry thanks to CO2
“Our vision is for the Rhineland region to build a fully climate-neutral chemical industry that does not need any fossil raw materials at all.”
Prof. Rüdiger-A. Eichel
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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.”
From opencast mine to cropland
“The recultivated areas of the opencast mine are like a big outdoor lab for us.”
Prof. Nicolas Brüggemann
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“Caution! Danger of falling!” A yellow sign warns of the precipice that suddenly opens up here. Nicolas Brüggemann takes another careful step closer to the edge. In front of him lies the enormous pit of the Inden opencast mine, which stretches out like a desert over several kilometres. The 250-metre-deep hole dwarfs the huge bucket-wheel excavators. The machines nibble at the terraced rising edges of the crater like bizarre insects.
“On kilometre-long conveyor belts, the soil above the coal is transported to the so-called stackers. The crane-like machines use it to backfill the pit where the coal was mined," says the Jülich professor of terrestrial biogeochemistry, whose research at the Institute of Bio- and Geosciences (IBG-3) includes the recultivation of opencast mining areas.
At the Inden opencast mine, together with RWE AG, he and his team from IBG-3 are investigating how the excavated soil can be used again as fertile farmland as quickly as possible. “This is like a big outdoor lab for us,” explains Nicolas Brüggemann. Researchers are investigating two farmland areas on the edge of the pit as part of the project Digitales Geosystem Rheinisches Revier (digital geosystem of the Rhineland region – DG-RR), an innovation lab of the structural change project BioökonomieREVIER (see page 18/19).
Excavation reduces soil quality
The scientist crouches down and reaches into the ochreous earth with his right hand. “Basically, this is the best farmland soil you can imagine,” he says. A topsoil layer rich in humus, in which crops thrive excellently, rests on a thick layer of calcareous loess soil, which is an unbeatable moisture reservoir.
When the bucket-wheel excavators remove the soil above the lignite, however, the topsoil mixes with the soil underneath, the loess. The nutrients and humus are effectively diluted by this, and the pH value also changes as a result of the lime. As a consequence, the soils yield less after excavation and reapplication than before.
The remedy: humus, nitrogen and phosphorus must be added to the soil so that it can again be used profitably for agriculture. This is initially done in the form of a three-year green manuring using lucerne with the addition of phosphate fertilizer. The lucerne binds nitrogen from the air and converts it into a form that can be utilized by plants. After that, compost is spread on the area. “RWE has now spread compost for us on two test fields on the edge of the opencast mine: the normal amount of compost on one of the fields and twice the usual amount on the other,” says the Jülich scientist. The researchers tested this procedure in the BonaRes project Inplamint. This simple measure in fact significantly increased the yield of wheat or barley.
The method also has another benefit: the soils bind significantly more carbon through the introduced compost. “This is of course important with regard to the aspired CO2 neutrality by 2045,” says Nicolas Brüggemann.
Compost as an export hit
If compost is applied at the right time in autumn, it can even prevent unwanted and environmentally harmful losses of nitrogen: microorganisms bind the excess nitrogen that the plants cannot absorb from the soil.
Nicolas Brüggemann plans to further optimize the compost and other soil improvers, such as modified plant charcoal, in cooperation with local companies. At the moment, these companies are using a by-product of lignite mining to produce soil conditioner. When, in a few years’ time, the large bucket-wheel excavators in Inden will come to a standstill, an organic product based on green waste or other residual materials could fill this gap and possibly prove to be an export hit. After all, nutrient-poor soils can be found everywhere in the world.
Digitalization has arrived in agriculture. Today, GPS positioning already helps to till, fertilize and harvest a field with pinpoint accuracy. But there is more in the wings: aerial drones assessing the condition of entire fields or networked sensors, ensuring that the soil provides enough water for the plants.
Structural change offers the Rhineland region the opportunity to test such new approaches to digital agricultural technology. To this end, science, agriculture and companies are working closely together in a total of 15 innovation labs of the structural change initiative BioökonomieREVIER, for example on a field of around six hectares near the Brainergy Park Jülich. “For me as a researcher, it is exciting to share new technologies with users in the region – and learn their opinions about them. This also applies to jointly developing ideas with start-up companies, which then design user-friendly products,” says the project manager of the Brainenergy Field Lab (BFL), Dr. Onno Muller from the Jülich Institute of Bio- and Geosciences (IBG-2).
The innovation lab “Bioeconomy and Digitalization” (SL-BioDig) also uses the area. The aim is to collect, analyze and make available large amounts of data on the condition of soils and plants. The data could be used to determine, for example, how much fertilizer is needed or how much water the plants are currently absorbing.
The “Marginal Field Lab”
Covering around 20 hectares in the Hambach opencast mine is another experimental area, the innovation lab “Marginal Field Lab” (MFL). In cooperation with RWE, different soils of a precisely known composition have been created there after the former open-cast mining area was backfilled. These soils can be used in science and industry to conduct field tests. The aim is to make the best use of poor soils so as to identify plant traits, improve water and nutrient use of food and commodity crops, grow renewable resources on poor soils, and test soil additives that improve water and nutrient supply.
In cooperation with regional, national and international partners, researchers from Jülich will test new plant breeding and soil improvement methods in the research infrastructure. Plants that can better withstand dry phases, or soil additives that increase the fertility of the soil and allow more water storage for the plant are just some examples. Another project focuses on safflower as a renewable raw material: from this undemanding plant, oil can be extracted that has the potential to replace fossil raw materials in the production of lubricants and cosmetics.
“We have a globally unique outdoor laboratory on this site to optimize the cultivation of plants on marginal soils, test bioeconomic approaches in agriculture and combine new and traditional methods,” says MFL coordinator Dr. Christina Kuchendorf.
More information ...
about the Marginal Field Lab (MFL) innovation lab (in German): Marginal Field Lab
about the soil improvement experiments in the MFL (in German): www.biooekonomierevier.de/klima_acker
New hardware for AI
“In the past, lignite was the resource in the Rhineland region. The resource of the future will be knowledge.”
Prof. Rainer Waser
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“We are rebuilding,” says Rainer Waser with an impish smile. “A state-of-the-art research building is currently being constructed here on the site of the previous Walter Schottky House,” explains the physical chemist, looking up at the glass façade of the new building on the Melaten campus of RWTH Aachen University.
Rainer Waser, professor at RWTH Aachen University and director of Jülich’s Peter Grünberg Institute (PGI-7), also has another conversion of a completely different kind in mind. “With lignite being phased out, we want to create industrial jobs in the Rhineland region in a promising field, namely in hardware for artificial intelligence applications.” In the NEUROTEC project, which is funded by the immediate action programme for structural change, the researcher and his team want to tackle one of the fundamental challenges of information technology: the energy problem.
As efficient as the brain
“Some 15 per cent of electrical energy is consumed by IT applications.” Computers modelled on the human brain, so-called neuromorphic systems, are much more economical than conventional computers. Such chips have previously worked with conventional semiconductor technology, that is, with tiny electronic switches. Rainer Waser intends to supplement these transistors with a new type of component: a memristor. This “resistor with a memory” is similar to the synapses in natural nerve cells, which makes it particularly suitable for artificial neural networks such as those used for artificial intelligence applications.
“Research institutions here in the region are world leaders in terms of basic research in this still young field,” explains Rainer Waser. “We are also fortunate to have several high-tech companies here that are showing interest in expanding their expertise towards neuromorphic systems. We hope that, in this way, a nucleus for this computer generation of the future will develop in the Rhineland region.”
For example: AIXTRON in Herzogenrath, partner company in the NEUROTEC project, supplies machines that deposit the thinnest layers of semiconductors on surfaces. These units could also be used to join memristive circuits and conventional silicon technology, says Rainer Waser: “This would be a first step on the way to neuromorphic systems: computer chips with additional functional layers based on memristors.” A location of cutting-edge research could emerge this way that will also offer an attractive environment for a large number of other companies.
AMO GmbH in Aachen, a research institute in nanotechnology, is another interface to small enterprises and start-ups. It collaborates with RWTH Aachen University and Forschungszentrum Jülich in the Clusters4Future initiative NeuroSys. This regional innovation network is to be established as a scientific and economic ecosystem for neuro-inspired computing. In addition to the memristor experts from Jülich, it brings together specialists from materials science, computer science, electrical engineering, neuroscience and the social sciences from the entire Rhineland region. Ethics is also on board, emphasizes Max Lemme, professor of electrical engineering at RWTH Aachen University, scientific managing director of AMO GmbH and spokesperson for the cluster: “How will AI influence our everyday lives in the future? What does this technology mean for the labour market? Questions like these are important to us.”
Considering the concentrated expertise, Rainer Waser sees the region well-positioned for the change to come: “In the past, lignite was the resource in the Rhineland region. The resource of the future will be knowledge. That includes the know-how for building neuromorphic computers for artificial intelligence.”
texts: Arndt Reuning
Photos: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Sascha Kreklau