future view

Chemical industry contributes to the sustainable energy challenge

14 June 2016 • 3 min reading time

More sustainable energy means more opportunities, as solar panels and windmills generate increasingly more electricity. The problem is that the power grid is not ready for the fluctuation of this energy supply, especially during peak times. Energy storage can absorb this surplus in part but another, highly promising option is for industry to use it directly. TNO and ECN (the Dutch energy research centre) have therefore joined forces with the Topsector Chemistry and the Ministry of Economic Affairs to set up the innovative VoltaChem research programme to enable the chemical industry to utilise sustainable electricity.

Last May the VoltaChem white paper 'Empowering the chemical industry - Opportunities for electrification' has been published. Here the status of various types of electrification are described.
“Within VoltaChem we are investigating how existing and new technologies can be applied to use sustainable energy in the chemical industry. Electrification – or the use of electricity instead of fossil fuels – really does contribute to the sustainable energy challenge by offering great opportunities to reduce our CO2 footprint as well as boosting competitiveness and product innovation,” says Martijn de Graaff, senior business development manager at TNO with a focus on the chemical industry.

For whom?

Electrification has potential for not only the chemical industry but also the energy sector and equipment building. “It’s good to see how much interest there is and that various companies like chemical companies, suppliers and knowledge organisations are joining up to the VoltaChem programme. Different sectors are coming together. Not an easy task at the same time, given the different backgrounds and goals the various parties have. However, all stakeholders agree that they will benefit if innovations in electrification can be accelerated,” De Graaff adds. The Netherlands is a unique location, densely populated with offshore wind farms and industry in the vicinity. “Ideal to be the first to test out the use of electrification. And then,” De Graaff expects, “on to a worldwide rollout.”

“The Netherlands is a unique location, ideal to be the first to test out the use of electrification.”


The research programme into electrification began at the start of 2015, and the first results are now coming in. Since the appearance of the roadmap last year, the VoltaChem white paper ‘Empowering the chemical industry – Opportunities for electrification’ has been published. It describes the status of different kinds of electrification:

  1. Power-2-Heat: converting electricity into heat
  2. Power-2-Hydrogen: converting electricity into hydrogen with electrolysis
  3. Power-2-Chemicals: converting electricity into chemical products and energy carriers through electrochemistry, as well as the use of electricity for high-value products

“Power-2-Heat is an opportunity for the short term and several concrete steps are already being taken. Much is expected of electrolysis and electrochemistry in particular. A really interesting option is the production of ethanol (a fuel and basic product for industry) from water and CO2, although there are significant challenges in getting costs down and the timeline will be somewhat longer. In the meantime, Power-2-Chemicals offers the possibility to make some interesting biobased building blocks on the basis of the higher selectivity that electrochemistry offers, like FDCA that is used in the production of plastic. The biggest impact will be achieved if we manage to make commodities (bulk products), like methanol, ammonia and ethylene. But,” De Graaff emphasises, “we’re not yet at that stage and there is plenty to be done!”. 


The next step is further development of the technologies described in the white paper on to the stage of useful applications for the chemical industry. De Graaff: “We are also creating a business plan along with several project developments for the next phases. That is quite a challenge that has both technical and financial implications. Many applications of electrification are just not economically feasible as things stand now, certainly when compared to production based on fossil fuels. So how can we finance this growth and the steps we want to take? How can we create the business case? Investments on a project basis only are not enough. This is something that requires significant and long-term effort and commitment from all parties. Only then can we achieve our goal of helping the chemical industry reduce its CO2 emissions through converting electricity (wind and solar), CO2- and biobased materials into basic materials and products.”

Bringing parties together

Within VoltaChem TNO brings in her expertise in electrosynthesis. “Converting CO2 into ethylene is an example of this. We have projects running in which odours and flavours are made using existing technologies like electrochemistry. This technology we can take through to the large-scale production of basic materials for the chemical industry. Within VoltaChem the parties we bring together range from large companies to SMEs. As a user of energy and with its expertise, the chemical industry can make a significant contribution,” says De Graaf. Knowledge institutes are also part of the cooperative.

All stakeholders intend to develop a new ecosystem. “Using the white paper we hope to enthuse parties to discover more about this topic. And that’s going quite well as more and more parties join the VoltaChem Community and participate in one of the programme lines or projects,” De Graaff concludes.

“Using the white paper we hope to enthuse parties to discover more about this topic.”

Read the White paper

Download the whitepaper ‘Empowering the chemical industry – Opportunities for electrification’