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Electrification chemical production: teamwork is key

05 Apr 2016

Shared Innovation Program VoltaChem, initiated by TNO, ECN, Topsector Chemistry, Ministry of Economic Affairs and several companies, connects the electricity sector to the chemical industry in order to develop and implement new technologies for the conversion of renewable energy to heat, hydrogen and chemicals. Both sectors met on 17th March 2016 at the second annual VoltaChem conference.

The goal of the event was to discover business cases for existing technologies and innovative ideas for emerging ones. The event, a co-production of Energy Valley, Topsector Chemistry, Innovatielink, FME and VoltaChem, took place at the Energy Barn on the grounds of EnTranCe in Groningen, The Netherlands.

Rein Willems: "We need to strengthen the current chemical clusters with innovation"

Keynote speaker Rein Willems, former president of Shell Netherlands, attracted the participant's attention by stating that in the last twenty years, main production of chemicals has moved from Europe and the US to Asia. In 2013, only 16,7% of global chemical production was based in the EU, yet sales have doubled. According to Willems Europe will have to specialise in higher value chemicals as otherwise the petrochemical industry will stagnate. The former chemical engineer called chemistry “the solution to many of the world’s challenges” and sustainable energy certainly is one of those. He reminded the audience of the fact that collaboration is key and pleaded for a “less parochial” attitude from his fellow countrymen and for the Dutch to “start networking to form more international cooperations.”

Collaborate to spark shared innovation research

In his presentation, Martijn de Graaff from VoltaChem/TNO endorsed Willem's plea by emphasizing the importance of the energy and chemical sector working together because their assets and resources can strengthen one another. He explained VoltaChem's aim to develop long- and short-term business cases and that the program invites partners to work on applied R&D together. “With the joint participation of businesses, governments and knowledge institutes, VoltaChem aims to bring technologies to industrial practice and spark larger shared innovation activities.” According to De Graaff VoltaChem's network of community members is steadily growing, but more collaborations are needed to be able to make more impact.

Power to the participants

After an excursion to EnTranCe, managers, business developers, engineers, scientists and policy makers took their place at one of the seven tables for a round of discussion and to find new partners and new business opportunities. Each table represented a topic, such as Power-2-Ammonia, Power-2-Commodities and Power-2-Integrate. After forty minutes, a new group took its place at the table. This led to different takes on the same subject and provided VoltaChem with valuable input on how its roadmap matches the industry's needs.

Power-2-Heat

The first group at the Power-2-Heat table agreed that the lower temperature industries such as breweries and food production are the most suitable to start applying Power-2-Heat-technology. These are industries that appeal to consumers who demand greener, more energy neutral products. Results will pave the way to acceptance in the higher temperature industries (steel, chemicals). The second group took a completely different angle and stated that electrification should start as standalone projects, to be integrated in the chain only when potentially viable side-streams are detected.

Power-2-Hydrogen

The Power-2-Hydrogen group initially had a 'coalition of the willing' at the table, who wanted to work together and lower costs. The second group, however, needed to be convinced and really wanted to wait for the market pull before they started looking for partners.

Power-2-Specialties

At the Power-2-Specialties tables the discussion was different. Main drivers appeared not to be energy price and electricity, but higher added value production and decentralization. Hydrogen peroxide proved to be a good first showcase, because of the apparent need in water treatment and the paper and pulp industry. Also FDCA was considered to be valuable, although not as a business case for current production, but as an example of using the technology in a biobased context.

Power-2-Ammonia

The Power-2-Ammonia table compared the (market) value of ammonia as a chemical with a high CO2-footprint versus ammonia as an energy carrier. Questions like 'will that change in the long term?' and 'where can costs be lowered in the chain?' were discussed. “The Power-2-Ammonia project in which VoltaChem collaborates with ISPT and several companies like Nuon and OCI Nitrogen was considered a good first step towards answering these questions.”

Power-2-Methanol

The Power-2-Methanol table was hoping for EU policy makers who will influence the automotive industry to accept methanol as 'a nicer fuel'. According to this group the reluctance for acceptance is a bigger hurdle than any technology.

Go ahead and contribute to the energy transition

That was also one of the conclusions for the entire day: in addition to acceptance, regulation is needed. And potential partners need to find each other. This is where VoltaChem plays a major role, as it brings together the entire supply chain. There is no excuse for not joining the discussion. The platform is in place. Or, as chairman Van der Spek said it: “Go ahead and contribute to the energy transition.”

Invitation to join VoltaChem's Community

Participants were warmly invited to join VoltaChem's Community that includes stakeholders from the chemical industry, electricity sector, high-tech industry and public sector. This community is an excellent platform to meet relevant stakeholders across the entire value chain, exchange knowledge and explore business opportunities together. Prior to the event VoltaChem hosted its first community meeting were community members discussed concrete opportunities to collaborate together.

The reactions from the industry to both the public event and the exclusive community meeting confirmed that VoltaChem responds to a clear need and that new collaborations and valuable research results can be expected in the near future.

Want to know more about VoltaChem? Get in touch with Martijn de Graaff.

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