Electrifying the chemical industry

25 Mar 2015

How can we use sustainable electricity in the chemical industry, both directly and indirectly? The chemical industry electrification programme is tackling this and other questions. In tandem with this, TNO has begun foundational research into electrocatalysis, which will contribute to the programme.

At the 28th of May ECN and TNO will organize a meeting about electrification

In 2014 ECN and TNO started work for the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Chemical Industry ‘top sector’ on a programme to electrify the chemical industry with the aim of reducing energy costs and creating new high-quality products. One of the areas of research is electrosynthesis, i.e. directly converting electricity into chemicals using existing technologies such as electrochemistry, membrane technology and separation technology. The chlorine industry is already using this, but the opportunities for other applications have not yet been exploited, for various reasons: there are not enough demonstration cases, there is insufficient familiarity with the benefits of electrochemistry, there are not enough equipment suppliers, and until recently Electrochemical Engineering figured only briefly as a subject in educational curricula. Moreover, there are substantial gaps in foundational knowledge and technology.

A better business case

‘If we can make catalytic converters more efficient and more selective, the cost will go down and the business case will improve’, explains TNO’s Martijn de Graaff. ‘That’s why we have launched an Enabling Research Programme (ERP) on electrocatalysis, based on last year’s results and in tandem with the ECN programme. We aim to focus particularly on selective oxidation, halogenation and C1 chemistry in collaboration with universities such as Leiden, Utrecht and Aachen. Selective oxidation means such things as producing FDCA from HMF, a biobased application. Halogenation involves coupling or producing chlorine, fluorine or bromium, resulting in less waste, hence greater sustainability. C1 chemistry is all about converting CO2 into chemicals, or directly converting greenhouse gases into useful products, again reducing the CO2 footprint.’

A step further

The chemical industry electrification programme has a Technology Readiness Level of 5-7: in other words, the industry can expect to see a pilot demonstrator in as little as two years’ time. The ERP on electrocatalysis has a Technology Readiness Level of 3-5, which means that more foundational research is being carried out. De Graaff goes on: ‘With the ERP we are taking ideas from the world of science a step further. Once we have generated the first demonstration case in the electrification programme the knowledge and technology for the next will be ready for the next stage. We’ve seen that this is an important area for the future, it is very, very promising. So we’re investing an additional half a million euros a year, on top of the funding that we’ve already received from the Ministry for the electrification programme, to which companies are also contributing.’


ECN and TNO will organize a meeting in May to exchange ideas with the industry on the road map for the chemical industry electrification programme. ‘I cordially invite companies, suppliers and knowledge organizations that want to be involved to attend’, says De Graaff. ‘Anyone contributing knowledge and experience or funding can put forward cases, will have access to the results and will be among the first to benefit from the developments. On top of this they will not only be part of the collaboration between ECN and TNO, they can also influence the parallel research at the partner universities.’

Do you want to join the meeting? Contact Martijn de Graaff


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