Chemical Industry is Looking for a Better Way to Use Resources
At Nouryon, Circular Projects Are Linked to Improving the Existing Value Chain, says Marco Waas
Availability and supply of essential resources for chemical production are getting increasingly challenging. At the same time, mankind has developed a throwaway mentality that is producing billions of tons of waste — waste that contains valuable resources in the form of, for instance, biomass, plastics or scarce metals. All this calls for a circular economy. As many other chemical companies, Nouryon is looking for ways to create a more sustainable future through chemistry. Interviewed by Michael Reubold of CHEManager, Marco Waas, Director RD&I and Technology at Nouryon, discusses the concept of circular economy and describes projects that contribute to a more efficient use of resources and a better use of secondary raw materials from waste.
CHEManager: Mr. Waas, Nouryon has embraced the circular economy in its sustainability agenda. How do you implement this concept into the corporate strategy?
„Sustainability has to be
an embedded strategy,
not a separate program.”
Marco Waas: Sustainability has to be an embedded strategy, not a separate program. For example, our chlor-alkali and chlorate businesses are very energy intensive and our efforts in energy efficiency and renewable energy are therefore key to securing a reliable energy supply in the long term. Our circular projects are all linked to improving our existing value chain by looking at a better way to use resources. Ultimately, sustainability is business and business is sustainability.
"Ultimately, sustainability is
business and business is sustainability.”
What are the most interesting projects currently under way to improve your resource & energy efficiency?
M. Waas: One project I like a lot is Waste-to-Chemicals. This is based on a technology from Enerkem to make methanol from household waste that we cannot otherwise recycle.
This is the type of technology that can really change the entire supply chain in the coming years. After 20 years, the technology is mature enough to scale up to factory size. With several partners we are planning a plant in Rotterdam that will be able to convert 360,000 tons of waste per year into 209,000 tons of methanol for the chemical industry.
In a another, much-respected project, Nouryon is partnering with Tata Steel and the Port of Amsterdam to study the feasibility of a “green” hydrogen cluster in the Amsterdam region. What potential do you consider green hydrogen to have for building and contributing to a circular economy?
“Green hydrogen is really
the game changer for circular chemistry.”
M. Waas: Green hydrogen is really the game changer for circular chemistry. Our industry still gets a lot of its raw materials from hydrocarbons such as gas or oil. You can also get the carbon from other sources, such as waste or CO and CO2 emissions from steel factories, but for optimal use you need to add hydrogen. So, this is where we come in. For example, Tata Steel can use our green hydrogen, produced from water and renewable electricity, to turn their waste gases into useful chemicals. With green hydrogen, waste carbon becomes a valuable raw material instead of a wasteful emission to the atmosphere.
You are building a demonstration plant to produce chemical building blocks from carbon dioxide and sunlight at Delfzijl, the Netherlands, with partner firm Photanol. Do you expect such processes to eventually solve the climate problem caused by CO2 emissions?
M. Waas: This technology will contribute, by using CO2 as a raw material — effectively turning chemical production into a carbon sink instead of a carbon emitter. But one technology will not solve climate change. We need to work together on all fronts and really go for a joint transformation of our petrochemical and heavy industries.
You are actively participating in the trend of collaborative and open innovation by partnering with other companies as well as academia and research organizations. How does, for instance, Nouryon’s Imagine Chemistry initiative contribute to developing more sustainable chemical platforms for your customers?
M. Waas: Imagine Chemistry helps us become a more reliable and valuable partner to our customers by bringing in outside innovations. For example, we are working with a start-up, Semiotic Labs, to use predictive algorithms at our factories so we know when to replace or repair critical equipment. By bringing in this knowledge from outside the chemical industry, we can reduce downtime and improve the reliability of our plants, which is a huge asset to our customers.
Another example is our partnership with Holiferm, one of the winners of the Imagine Chemistry challenge in 2017. They have a new process to improve fermentation processes to make surfactants from bio-based sources. We have helped them on the road from a lab setting to a real start-up. Our Collaborative investment fund, ICOS III, has recently announced an investment in Holiferm. We do this with the aim of ultimately making better and cheaper bio-surfactants available to our customers.
Collaboration across CO2-intensive industries is also a major trend in the aim to battle climate change. Nouryon, together with partners from research and industry, is participating in the publicly funded Carbon2Chem project coordinated by German steel producer Thyssenkrupp. What is Nouryon’s contribution and intention here?
M. Waas: This is another example of using CO and CO2 with green hydrogen to make methanol and other chemicals. Nouryon is contributing technical and operational expertise in water electrolysis and the conversion of syngas to methanol.
Which guidelines do you apply to allocate R&D budget to a circular economy project and evaluate the progress?
“When you look at the entire value chain
[…] there are often a lot of
M. Waas: We start by looking at the strategic fit with our business and assessing the return on investment, both short and long-term. On bigger projects with a longer horizon we often work with partners to increase the chances of project success and decrease risk. When you look at the entire value chain of the project, from raw material to end product, there are often a lot of hidden opportunities, which is another reason to pursue these projects in partnerships.
After the split from AkzoNobel, Nouryon is private-equity-owned and under scrutiny of the investors. How — and when — will the circular economy projects pay of in terms of financial success?
M. Waas: There are a number of technologies coming to maturity that can contribute in the coming years. The Waste-to-Chemicals plant in Rotterdam can be operational in three years’ time for example. Production of green hydrogen is another example. This is based on electrolysis technology and we already operate several large-scale electrolysis facilities to produce chlor-alkali. I therefore see no large technical obstacles for the deployment of water electrolysis for hydrogen production. I cannot predict market prices, but in the current socio-economic climate I think the transition of the industry can also be a major opportunity for long-term growth.
The term “do more with less” implements that we will need less materials to produce the same — or better — products in the future. How will the current volume-based business model of the chemical industry have to change in order to “earn more with less”?
“The next wave of innovation
will be focused on circular chemistry.”
M. Waas: I think the chemical industry is now entering an entirely new growth cycle based on circular chemistry. In the 1960’s, we were focused on investing in new materials, such as plastics. Then it was all about mass production and making product affordable for a growing world population. The next wave of innovation will be focused on circular chemistry, to make affordable products for the world population in a sustainable way.
Several projects lead to savings in energy costs, but others are adding extra costs to products. At the end of the day, you will have to ask your customers to remunerate you for your investments in more sustainable and efficient products. How do you rate their readiness to do so?
M. Waas: Our customers are looking for a reliable partner to supply them with essential chemicals, and our innovations are supporting this. When it comes to pricing, European society is increasingly seeing carbon emissions as a cost, which is reflected in energy and carbon prices. Energy efficiency projects are making us more cost effective, not less. The same will apply to circular chemistry in the long run. Many technologies are only now scaling up — imagine what it would mean when we make our products from wind, water and waste.