The fight against climate change is a high priority in most European countries. Through the European Green Deal, Europe wants to become climate neutral by 2050. Meeting that commitment implies a radical reduction of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, the most important driving force behind global warming. Flanders supports the European long-term objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990.
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Moonshot: full swing to a carbon-neutral Flanders by 2050
In order to achieve that objective, the government launched Moonshot, an industrial innovation program. Its aim is not to fly to the moon and back, but to foster carbon neutral industrial activities by 2050. The government of Flanders asked Catalisti, the spearhead cluster for Flanders’ chemical and plastics industry, to take the lead in putting this industrial innovation program into practice. It also invested EUR 3 million into research to tackle the chemical sector's biggest CO2 emitter: crackers.
If you want to change something about the CO2 emissions of the chemical sector in Flanders, then crackers have to be the first point of attention.
Crackers or cracker units are basic plants on which entire petrochemical clusters are built. Naphtha is 'cracked' into ethylene, propylene and butadiene, which in turn form the basis for all kinds of plastics that are used in anything from car bumpers and toothbrushes to PET bottles. Cracking takes place in large furnaces through which reactor tubes containing naphtha and steam pass. The naphtha is heated to 830 degrees by burning natural gas. In the process, CO2 is released. So far, that’s how the cracking process has worked.
Six petrochemical companies, BASF, Borealis, BP, LyondellBasell, SABIC and Total, which are based in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands, created a consortium – aptly named ‘cracker of the future’ – to investigate how naphtha or gas steam crackers could be operated using renewable electricity instead of fossil fuels. Precedents already exist: in home heating systems, natural gas is making way for electrically driven heat pumps. This electrification could prove a viable option in the chemical industry.
The impact might be enormous: the BASF and Total crackers located at the Port of Antwerp alone could avoid 2.6 million tons of CO2 emissions annually. That’s a quarter of the total emissions of the entire chemical sector.
However, there are key challenges in developing electricity-based cracker technology, such as ensuring that the process is technologically and economically feasible.
Walter Vermeiren, technology intelligence manager at Total and chairman of the consortium, trusts that the technology will be available at some point, but that a lot still hinges on the investment costs and the availability of sufficient and affordable renewable energy.
Els Brouwers, climate expert at essenscia, the Belgian association of chemical companies, sees other options besides electrification. Among those are the development of products based on renewable raw materials, chemical recycling of plastics, green hydrogen for the production of ammonia, the capture and storage of CO₂ and its reuse.
"It's a big puzzle we have to fit together," Brouwers admits. "A big advantage is that we have a large industrial cluster in Flanders. That makes the region an ideal test zone for this type of innovation.”