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Renewable carbon is key to a sustainable and future-oriented chemical industry

For the chemical and plastics industries, a transition to carbon from renewable sources is the equivalent to decarbonisation in the energy sector. The chemical industry can only develop into a sustainable sector once it bids farewell to fossil raw materials such as crude oil, natural gas and coal for good and uses nothing but renewable carbon as a raw material in organic chemistry. This is entirely feasible according to a new position paper published by the nova-Institute.

ETOGAS has built the world's first and largest industrial Power-to-Gas (PtG) plant in Werlte, Germany on behalf of Audi AG. The 6.3 MW power input plant has been producing Audi's e-gas since 2013 in dynamic and intermittent operation using wind power and CO2 from a biogas plant (photo courtesy ETOGAS).

ETOGAS has built the world’s first and largest industrial Power-to-Gas (PtG) plant in Werlte, Germany on behalf of Audi AG. The 6.3 MW power input plant has been producing Audi’s e-gas since 2013 in dynamic and intermittent operation using wind power and CO2 from a biogas plant (photo courtesy ETOGAS).

It is not a decarbonisation as it is called in the energy sector, that will help the chemical industry. After all, organic chemistry cannot be decarbonised, as it is entirely based on the use of carbon. This also includes the plastics industry – the modern world is inconceivable without its versatile polymers unless you are prepared to accept considerable sacrifices or higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

There are only three sources of renewable carbon: renewable carbon from the mechanical and chemical recycling of already existing plastics, renewable carbon gained from all types of biomass and renewable carbon from direct carbon dioxide (CO2) utilisation of fossil point sources as well as from permanently biogenous point sources and direct air capture.

According to a new position paper “Renewable Carbon is Key to a Sustainable and Future-Oriented Chemical Industry” published by Germany-headed nova-Institute GmbH, a private and independent research institute that offers research and consultancy with a focus on bio-based and CO2 -based economy, all three sources are essential for a complete transition to renewable carbon. Furthermore, that all of them, in equal shares, should be used by the industry, supported by politics and accepted by the population.

In a sustainable chemical industry, bulk chemicals will primarily rely on chemical CO2 utilisation through methane, methanol and naphtha, while speciality chemicals and complex molecules will more likely be produced from biomass and CO2 fermentation. At the same time, mechanical and chemical recycling will reduce the need for additional renewable carbon on the whole.

Whereas traditional recycling re-uses products and materials, the authors emphasise that the use of biomass and direct CO2 utilisation is tantamount to a recycling process which also constitutes part of an extended circular economy. The authors show how the complete conversion of the chemical industry to renewable carbon could look like and which cultivation areas are necessary for the biomass and renewable energy demands.

According to the authors, a future scenario for the plastics industry might look as follows: With an annual growth of three to four percent, the global production of plastics will soon reach
400 million tonnes per annum. Pronounced recycling efforts might hold the continuously growing demand for new plastics between 400 and 500 million tonnes by 2050.

This need could then be covered by, for example, 30 percent biomass and 70 percent direct CO2 utilisation. The total of biomass required to do so would amount to roughly 1 percent of biomass currently used around the globe in all fields of application.

Finally, the authors discuss thirteen concrete measures that are politically suited to initiate and accelerate the change towards renewable carbon. These include for example taxes on fossil carbon, renewable carbon quotas for bulk polymers or annual reporting by the chemical companies on their share of renewable carbon in production.

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