Chemistry & Life Sciences

Catalysts for More Efficient Processes

Evonik is Investing in Key Technologies and Future Markets for Chemical Catalysts

23.05.2017 -

Catalysis is a key technology for sustainable manufacturing processes in the chemical industry. Catalytic processes play an important role in roughly 90% of all chemical products, from inorganic and organic basic chemicals to cosmetic feedstocks through to herbicides and medications. Catalysts make a substantial contribution to the added value of these products and are also a core business area for Evonik. Evonik, the specialty chemicals group based in Essen, Germany, expanded its Catalysts Business Line, located in the group’s Resource Efficiency Segment, two years ago by purchasing the Indian company Monarch Catalyst. This move strengthened its global market position. Dr. Michael Reubold spoke with the business line’s Senior Vice President and General Manager, Dr. Steffen Hasenzahl, about the importance of catalysts but also about resource-saving processes and problem solutions.

CHEManager: Dr. Hasenzahl, Evonik is focusing on mega trends such as health and nutrition, resource efficiency and globalization. Could you please start by explaining how the catalyst business fits into the group’s portfolio?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: Catalysts are a perfect match for Evonik’s portfolio. As one of the leading manufacturers of specialty chemicals, we focus on businesses that offer high value added, and catalysts are the number one generators of added value in the chemical industry.

Evonik has geared its business towards the trends you asked about, and has divided them into three operating segments: Nutrition & Care, Performance Materials and Resource Efficiency. Catalysts is one of nine business lines in the Resource Efficiency Segment, which realized sales of approximately EUR 4.5 billion in the 2016 business year, with more than 8,900 employees. Our products are a perfect fit for this segment, as catalysts help to substantially reduce the energy and resource consumption of chemical processes.

How is your business line positioned in the market?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: Our focus is on catalysts for the chemical industry and related areas such as pharmaceuticals and the agricultural industry. We do not operate in the areas of offgas purification and refinery catalysts, nor of catalysts for manufacturing basic chemicals such as ammonia or methanol.

In addition to the product business, our project business is another key pillar for us. Here, we work with almost all the leading companies in the chemical and petrochemical industry, and develop customized catalysts with them for their key processes.

Where are your plants located?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: The Catalysts Business Line of Evonik is a global player with eight production sites. Our worldwide production network includes the German sites in Hanau, Marl and Rheinfelden and the international sites Calvert City in the USA, Americana in Brazil, Tsukuba in Japan, Shanghai in China and Dombivli in India. We acquired the latter plant in 2015 from the former Monarch Catalyst. This means we are represented in all of the relevant growth regions and markets. From these sites, we supply catalysts and catalyst components to manufacturers of pharmaceutical products, agrochemicals and foodstuffs that we group together in the Life Science and Fine Chemicals market segment, as well as to a multitude of different customers in the Industrial & Petrochemicals and Polyolefin segments. In addition to activated nickel catalysts and nickel-based hydrogenation catalysts for oils and fats, precious metal powder catalysts, and components for olefin polymerization catalysts, our product portfolio contains a wide range of fixed-bed catalysts.

How important are acquisitions like that of Monarch in India for your business?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: Market growth continues to be centered in Asia, especially China and India. By acquiring the production site of the former Monarch Catalyst company roughly 50 km east of Mumbai, we can supply our customers, particularly in the Life Sciences & Fine Chemicals market segment in India, and also in the Asian growth market as a whole, in the best possible manner. The company and its 300 employees has now been fully integrated and established under the name Evonik Catalysts India. It now combines all our catalyst activities in India and has even taken on a number of global functions.

India has meanwhile become one of the major markets for precious metal powder catalysts. Evonik Catalysts India gives us our own closed-loop precious metal cycle. In other parts of the world, we offer this in collaboration with partners. We are also in a position to recycle used nickel catalysts. An acquisition such as Monarch Catalyst fits our business perfectly. Products, technologies and applications complement our portfolio ideally and promise high growth potential.

Otherwise, in the Business Line we continue to invest in the further development of our own production capacities. We are currently modernizing and expanding our plant site in India, while continuing to invest in our German and U.S. plant sites. One of our biggest projects last year was the expansion of our forming capacities in Marl. When it comes to high-performance catalysts for fixed-bed applications, forming through methods such as granulation, extrusion and tableting is an essential stage in the manufacturing process.

Where are you currently investing in research and development?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: We develop new catalyst systems on an ongoing basis. A prominent example that we are working on intensively is catalysts for oxidation reactions with hydrogen peroxide. We are also working to develop new types of activated nickel catalysts. We carry out catalyst research and development worldwide, at our two German research sites in Hanau and Marl, as well as in the USA, China, Japan and India.

The acquisition in India has enabled you to expand your portfolio of catalysts for oils and fats hydrogenation. How important do you consider this business to be?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: Oils and fats play a key role in our lives, such as in the food and cosmetics industries, as well as in many technical applications, e.g. as lubricants. Before natural fats and oils can be further processed, they have to be treated and modified, e.g. through the hydrogenation of double bonds in the fatty acid chain. This is frequently done using hydrogenation catalysts from Evonik. We sell these catalysts around the globe from our site in India. Our research and development department for these products is also based in Dombivli.

Southeast Asia, with its large countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, where many vegetable oils and fats are produced, is an interesting growth market for us. We handle this market from our office in Singapore.

Talking about markets, how do you assess China?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: China is now considered the biggest market for specialty chemicals. It is a highly competitive market that is not growing quite as fast as just a few years ago, but remains immensely important for our business, if only in terms of its size. Chinese firms are very interested in high-level technologies, and we believe we are well positioned with our products and solutions that we can offer at regional conditions. The efforts undertaken by the Chinese government to promote more resource-saving and environmentally friendly processes as well as industrial sectors that offer high value added, such as specialty chemicals, inside the country, offer us an enormous opportunity as a manufacturer of high-end products.

How can you offer your high-end products at competitive prices in China?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: Chinese customers are quite willing to pay a little more for products with a technical edge, but pressure from competitors is high. Apart from catalyst know-how as such, feedstock purchasing and a closed-loop metal cycle are key factors. That only works if we have capable people on the ground who know a thing or two about catalysis, but are also familiar with the Chinese language and customs, and therefore have direct access to customers.

What are the drivers of innovation in the catalyst business, in your opinion?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: Resource efficiency is the major topic. That’s why the Resource Efficiency Segment of Evonik is the right place to be for the Catalysts Business Line. Not only do we supply external customers with catalysts, we also supply many business units within Evonik itself. Our segment’s value proposition is “more value, less resource”. That neatly sums up our business. It succinctly says what our customers expect of us; more and more efficient, active and selective catalysts with longer life times, which enable customers to run their processes even more efficiently, with fewer resources and higher yields. Process development always goes hand in hand with catalyst development.

Regulations such as REACH are further drivers of innovation in catalysis. The regulator always acts as an innovator, so to speak. The use of new feedstocks also promotes development in catalysis. Just think of shale gas in the USA, biomass, and as of late also CO2 as a feedstock.

How do you assess the trend towards bio-based chemicals?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: This particularly concerns the production of platform chemicals such as succinic acid or hydroxymethylfurfural from biomass. We have received numerous inquiries from customers regarding biomass conversion from all over the world. Often the raw material flexibility is in the foreground. The production of chemicals from renewable raw materials requires new syntheses that combine biotechnological and chemical processes. Consequently, the question as to whether new catalysis systems are needed often arises. However, bio-based platform chemicals always compete with those from fossil fuel raw materials, in particular given the relatively low oil and gas prices at present.

What trends do you see as regards the catalysts themselves?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: We see the replacement of precious metals with other metals like cobalt, iron and copper as an opportunity, because it would mean real cost benefits for everyone concerned. But owing to their high efficiency, it won’t be possible to replace catalysts based on precious metals on a broad scale. The replacement of chromium VI is another issue.

How do you rate the pharmaceuticals market in terms of sales potential for your business?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: In the pharmaceutical industry, our catalysts are mainly used for specific process stages such as hydrogenation, for synthesizing active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) or intermediaries. We are constantly adjusting and optimizing our catalysts, but innovation in the pharmaceutical industry is more about improving products and processes in view of the high regulatory requirements that have to be met. Increasing pressure is also coming from generics. That is another reason why India and China are important markets for us, because many of these generic active ingredients are produced there.

There have long been efforts in the pharmaceutical industry to replace the typical batch processes with continuous processes—flow chemistry is the buzzword here. Manufacturing APIs in continuous processes offers opportunities. This calls for suitable catalyst systems, and we are working on their development. The question of when flow chemistry will make a breakthrough in pharmaceutical production is difficult to answer, though. It depends on many different factors.

The theme of sustainability is also playing an increasing role in the manufacture of plastics such as polyolefins. What innovation potential do you see here?

Dr. S. Hasenzahl: The search for ever more efficient catalysts also concerns polyolefin production. We mainly produce components for Ziegler and Ziegler-Natta catalysts and are now doing more to develop new substrate materials. Controlling morphology is important for developing effective catalysts, and we as a company have a good grasp of this subject based on our experience with silica.