Frans Lemmens / HH
in the workplace

VoltaChem: electrification of the chemical industry

1 June 2015 • 3 min reading time

How can we utilise renewable electricity in the chemicals industry? This is what The Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and ‘top sector’ chemistry commissioned ECN and TNO, together with companies in Shared Innovation Program VoltaChem, to cooperate in this investigation. The objectives of these promoters are: sustainability, reduction in energy costs and new high-quality products.

An increase in renewable energy offers opportunities. Solar panels and windmills increasinglygenerate more electricity, but the offer fluctuates and the electricity grid is not prepared for this. That is partly to be dealt with by energy storage. Another possibility is the direct use of the electricity in the industry.

Application renewable energy in the chemical industry

The Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN) and TNO, together with the industry and under the flag of VoltaChem, investigate how existing and new technologies can be used to enable renewable energy in the chemical industry. At the end of 2014 they started developing a roadmap.

“In addition, we seek connections with various parties such as chemical companies,suppliers and knowledge based organisations, to become members of the VoltaChem community and participate in projects”. It is fascinating to realise that there are many interested parties”, says Martijn de Graaff, senior business development manager at TNO, who focuses on the chemical industry.

“It is fascinating to realise that there are many interested parties”

Improving existing technologies

“We will not generate new fundamentalideas, but we will look into how existing and fully developed technologies can be improved, so as to comply withdemandson the industry”, explainsRob Kreiter of ECN. “It’s really aboutapplied research. The different concepts in the programme have already been worked on separately. The next step is to take the development of the technologies forward to useful applications in the chemical industry.”

Join the industrial needs

The programme consists of several levels. “We focus both in the short and long term and try to join the industrial needs. “We make a palette of options. One can be achievedquickly but the other willneed more time. The aim is to create fully fledged programme within two years, in which parties canparticipate and where we need to demonstrate concrete results within different pilots”, De Graaff adds. Companies can consult the VoltaChem website to see an overview of the current 'calls for participation' in which VoltaChem calls for co-operation in concrete projects.

Technology is available

In the first instance,ECN and TNO focus in three different ways in which the chemical industry could utilizerenewable electricity: converting electricity to heat (Power-2-Heat), to chemical products (Power-2-Chemicals) and to hydrogen (Power-2-Hydrogen).

“We notably believe that the production of hydrogen by electrolysis from water offers opportunities for Zeeland for instance, and concerns a hydrogen issue: companies either have a deficiency or surplus. Any surplus cannot be stored properly for later use, so therefore it is not an option. Shortly, there will be a wind park out the front door in Borssele; It will make sense to view the direct link of this fluctuating electricity mix with the industry. How, where and what – is what we have to investigate – but the technology is there. The challenge is if you can turn the process on and offin the event of a deficiency or surplus and if you can build an affordable system for it”, says Kreiter.

Electrosynthesis

In addition, electrosynthesis – directly converting electricity into chemicals – is very promising. “TNO is currently running projects wherein, with the help of the existing technology such as electrochemistry,flavour and fragrances are made. We can further develop this technology for large-scaleproduction of basic substances for the chemical industry”, expects De Graaff.

Electrical energy can be used indirectlyas well. An example might be heat pumps which upgrade low pressure and temperature through the usage of electricity. This is how you convertresidual heat into valuable heat, which can then be re-used for a chemical process”, says Kreiter.

Applying opportunities

TNO and ECN are equivalent partners in this flexible programme which emphatically collaborates with the industry, by means of the VoltaChem community at which large and small companies of the chemicals industry, the electricity sector and the devicesuppliersare represented. Kreiter: “the co-operation is good. We had many project related contacts for this programme. In addition, we hold basic convictions of faith in common withthe chemistry ‘Top Sector’ which is that renewable energycan give an important boost to thechemical industry. The next step is toapply opportunities to the companies.

Background

Electrocatalysis
Next to the programme withECN, TNO has also started an Enabling Research Programme (ERP) around “Energy Conversion & Storage. The initial focus among other things is onElectrocatalysis. De Graaff: “Incollaboration with a few universities we take fundamental research towardsselective oxidations, halogen rings and C1- chemistry in particular a step further. We believe that this is an important subject for the future which offers many opportunities. Therefore, in addition to the electrification programme, we invest half a millioneuros per year.”

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