Carbon is everywhere. Coupled with two oxygen atoms it forms CO2. It is in the atmosphere and in sparkling water. Rocks and minerals such as limestone, dolomite, plaster and marble are made of carbon. All living things consist of carbon, along with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen and some other elements.
In the remains of prehistoric organic material, compressed for centuries in the earth’s crust, carbon chains form the backbone of the fossil fuels that have made the industrial revolution and the subsequent population growth with rising living standards possible. These fossil fuels provide energy during combustion.
CO2 is then released, as a result of which the amount of CO2 in the air has risen slowly but surely: from 295 ppm (parts per million) in 1900 to 315 ppm in 1960 to 410 ppm in 2019, the highest concentration in 800,000 years. It is only 0.03% of the atmosphere, but due to the greenhouse effect, it has major consequences for the climate.
Carbon is thus in the air, in our body, in gasoline and in soft drinks. This element is essential to life. A ‘low-carbon’ economy is therefore a misunderstanding. Carbon is crucial for our society and quality of life – there is just too much of it at the wrong place: as CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.
The question now is how we can use and manage carbon in a smart manner so that fossil CO2 no longer gets into the atmosphere and causes climate change. By using the available stocks wisely, treating them as a sustainable raw material and even ensuring that we can remove CO2 from the air. In the coming decades, chemistry will play a crucial role in creating new carbon sources, for fuels and plastics for example, like carbon from other, climate-neutral sources, such as the atmosphere, biomass or recycled material.
That is not impossible. Plants show us how to do it. They have been doing photosynthesis for over 400 million years. With that process, they synthesise sugars from water and CO2 using the sun’s energy. These sugars are needed for their growth and flowering. The residual product of photosynthesis is oxygen. All other life depends on it.
We can eat those sugars and get the oxygen to burn them for free. Our waste gas is CO2 and the plants use it again. Thus the planetary circle is closed. In this ancient cycle lies the core of what should be a carbon-smart, circular economy.
For that, we all will need to innovate : looking for ground-breaking technologies that render greenhouse gases such as CO2 harmless by capturing and storing them (CCS: Carbon Capture & Storage) or reusing them as raw materials in new materials or synthetic fuels (CCU, Carbon Capture & Utilisation).
No matter how circular we manage the economy, energy supply will have to be its cornerstone. Physical laws are simply impossible to circumvent, so energy will always be needed: with every production process, every transport, every consumption. Innovations in carbon-smart technologies will also require much more energy. And that energy should therefore be generated and used in a way that is climate neutral, without net greenhouse gas emissions.
We will need all the available knowledge and experience in business and the academic world to achieve this sustainable end-goal of carbon-smart society and a climate-friendly industry. A sufficient supply of climate-neutral energy forms therefore the real climate challenge of the coming decades.
This concerns both climate-neutral energy carriers – such as sustainably generated electricity, but also hydrogen – and climate-neutral energy sources, such as wind, sun or nuclear power. The latest already produce electricity as an energy carrier. A further electrification of production processes will contribute to the sustainable future of industry, along with the further and continued improvement of production processes, so that they continue to be more and more energy-efficient.
Breakthrough research and innovation for a carbon-smart industry: the Moonshot programme
That is not a coincidence. Chemical processes require a lot of energy because they often take place at high temperatures and under high pressure. The chemical industry is therefore one of the largest industrial consumers of energy. To become truly sustainable in the long term, both society and the sector will have to source their energy in a climate neutral way. Especially since renewable energy via solar panels or wind turbines alone cannot meet that current energy demand.
The products and processes that the chemical industry provides are, on the other hand, of fundamental importance. The innovations are indispensable for the optimal production of climate-neutral energy. Products from the sector are designed to generate fewer CO2 emissions and more energy efficiency in homes, transport, agriculture and other industries. For example, with insulating materials for energy-efficient houses, or lightweight materials for cars so they use less fuel.
Since 1990, total production in the sector has tripled, while energy consumption has only increased by 37%. In other words, energy efficiency has increased considerably. In addition, the use of coal and fossil fuel for energy generation during the last three decades has been phased out, and replaced by electricity (30%) and natural gas (70%).
Renewable energy is also being used more and more, especially where it can be produced stably and on a sufficiently large scale. This is increasingly happening in symbiosis with other industries. The ECLUSE steam network in the chemical cluster in the port of Antwerp, for example, supplies green energy generated in a waste processing plant to drive the production processes in neighbouring chemical companies.
That is precisely the basis for the success of the chemical sector in our country: the exchange not only of energy, but also of materials and molecules, between companies themselves. What is a waste stream in the production process of one company can be usefully used as raw material by another company. Also within the same company, heat is exchanged as much as possible between different installations by recovering residual heat and using combined heat and power. This allows energy to be used to best advantage.
High temperature heat is the greatest energy requirement of the sector. Today, this requirement is mainly met with natural gas because it has a high energy density. To reduce the impact of this requirement on the climate, its replacement with biomass or biogas could be an option. However its supply is not inexhaustible, nor is it widely available without ecological side effects such as land use issues.
Despite all the profits made, the goal remains to produce as efficiently as possible with less energy and fewer emissions. Almost all sector companies that consume a lot of energy have therefore entered into a covenant with the government in which they take an engagement to further drive energy efficiency, even though the low-hanging fruit has been harvested for a long time and it is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to do even better.
Our society is far from being climate-neutral, but the chemical and life sciences industries do play a pioneering role for the rest of industry and society as a whole. The challenges are huge and require a coherent approach across all policy areas, underpinned by support from citizens and businesses. Nor will there be one magical solution. Nobody can do this on his own. The climate issue requires sector and cross-border solutions. With innovation as the spearhead.
The chemical sector is at the centre of this and holds some powerful tools. Petroleum is currently mostly used as raw materials for everyday materials and molecules, from lubricants to plastics, from cleaning products to medicines. Fundamental research is under way in this field, in a search for alternative, sustainable raw materials.
The core of a carbon-smart economy will be formed by capturing CO2 and using it as a raw material for basic chemicals, fuels and plastics. Within a circular economy, it is also necessary to deepen the role of bio-based materials and to convert plastics again into a basic raw material for the chemical industry at the end of their usefulness.
Climate-neutral raw materials and energy sources, and new carriers for that energy such as hydrogen, are needed for a sustainable society. The continuous efforts of the chemical and life sciences to further reduce their own climate footprint will continue to play a leading role in this.
In addition to the many scientific and technological challenges, this unprecedented transition also requires a smart economic vision in which the climate approach and the transformation to a climate-neutral energy system is done in a realistic and feasible way for citizens and businesses. In this way, in a globalised economy, there is still room to invest in our country and to innovate in climate solutions that can make a difference worldwide.