Industry is expected to make a significant contribution to achieving climate targets. This includes reducing CO₂ emissions and moving away from fossil fuels as much as possible. This has considerable implications for processes at a chemical site, such as the Chemelot site. The recently opened Brightsite Plasma Lab makes a significant contribution to the required sustainability. What role does Sitech play in this?
Finding Alternatives Without CO₂ Emissions
Sitech is one of the partners in Brightsite, the knowledge center for research into the sustainability of the chemical industry. One of Brightsite's program lines focuses on reducing emissions from electricity. Wilbert Derks (Project Manager Brightsite & Innovations) and Zowi Maier (Chemical Engineer) are working on this. Wilbert explains, "Three years ago, we had the idea of using plasma technology at the ammonia plants. These use natural gas to produce the hydrogen needed for the production of ammonia. At present, natural gas is processed by 'steam reforming', which releases a lot of CO₂. To reduce these emissions, we started looking for alternatives. Electrolysis, for example, but that option was eventually discarded because it would have made the production of ammonia five times more expensive. What we did want to research further was plasma technology. Using this approach, natural gas is cracked with an electric arc, so there are no CO₂ emissions — an interesting idea to pursue."
Plasma Technology for New Products
The idea of using plasma technology is being further developed within Brightsite. "Plasma technology is not new," Wilbert continues. "There is already a plasma reactor that has been producing acetylene since the 1930s. Within Brightsite, we are looking at other ways of operating such a reactor and at the possibilities of using it to generate other products that can be used in the chemical industry. This is unique and has already attracted the interest of large international companies. We are making optimum use of the combined knowledge of the various Brightsite partners. Maastricht University is bringing in researchers and TNO has expertise in constructing this type of installation. Sitech provides knowledge in the field of process technology and project engineering. Moreover, we are experienced in operating plants on a chemical site and know how to scale up to a commercial plasma plant."
Brightsite Plasmalab tour
Scaling up in Three Steps
Scaling up to a commercial plant is part of the future plans for the plasma lab. In the design process on the way to achieving this, use is made of Zowi's technological knowledge. As he explains, "The route to a commercial plant consists of three steps. The first step is already under way: setting up a small-scale plasma lab for basic research. Through this research, we want to find out whether it is possible to make other products in addition to acetylene. Once we understand that, we can move on to phase two: the construction of a pilot plant. From that, we can learn how the process behaves when it is operated 24/7. You often you see problems arising that are less common on a small scale, such as the accumulation of contamination or problems with cooling equipment. These issues must first be resolved. Armed with the information from the pilot plant, we can then take the next step: scaling up to a demo and commercial plant."
Arnold Stokking, Managing Director Brightsite“Plasma technology has a great future in the chemical industry. From our point of view, plasma technology is THE new process technology based on green electricity. This technology will play a major role in the sustainability transition of the chemical industry.”
Confidence in Partnership
Expectations are high. Nevertheless, the project team still has a quite a bit of work to do. "Around 10 people from Sitech are involved, with tasks including engineering and working out a budget for the demo and live plants," says Wilbert. "But there is also still a great deal that needs to be done in other areas. If more and more processes at Chemelot become electric, a substantial investment in the electrical infrastructure will be required nationwide. But first we want to demonstrate on a small scale that this process works and is economically viable. With the help of partners such as TNO, Maastricht University and Chemelot Campus, we are confident that we will succeed in this."
Plasma Technology as a Game Changer
A considerable proportion of the processes and installations in the chemical industry must be powered by renewable electricity by 2050, in order to significantly reduce or even eliminate CO₂ emissions. Plasma technology is a promising option for making existing chemical processes sustainable. It replaces natural gas as an energy source for chemical processes by means of electrification, and is therefore a very important route for achieving climate targets.
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