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Evonik and Siemens launch joint artificial photosynthesis project to convert carbon dioxide to speciality chemicals

Germany-headed global speciality chemicals major Evonik Industries AG and global technology "powerhouse" compatriot Siemens AG have recently announced a joint project that seeks to produce high-value speciality chemicals from carbon dioxide (CO2) and renewable electricity using bacteria. The two year "Rheticus" research project entails an electrolysis and fermentation pilot plant at the Evonik facility in Marl, Germany which produces chemicals such as butanol and hexanol.

Evonik and Siemens start joint artificial photosynthesis research project Rheticus (photo courtesy Evonik).

According to a joint statement, Evonik and Siemens are planning to use renewable electricity and bacteria to convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into speciality chemicals. The two companies are working on electrolysis and fermentation processes in a joint research project called Rheticus.

The first test plant is scheduled to go on stream by 2021 at the Evonik facility in Marl, Germany which produces chemicals such as butanol and hexanol, both feedstocks for special plastics and food supplements.

The next stage could see a plant with a production capacity of up to 20 000 tonnes a year. There is also potential to manufacture other speciality chemicals or fuels. Some 20 scientists from the two companies are involved in the project.

We are developing a platform that will allow us to produce chemical products in a much more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way than we do today. Using our platform, operators will in future be able to scale their plants to suit their needs, explained Dr Günter Schmid, technical project Manager of Siemens Corporate Technology.

According to the duo, the new technology combines multiple benefits. It not only enables chemicals to be produced sustainably, it also serves as an energy store, can respond to power fluctuations and help stabilize the grid.

Two-step artificial photosynthesis process

The Rheticus project is linked to the Kopernikus Initiative for the energy transition in Germany which is seeking new solutions to restructure the energy system. The project will receive EUR 2.8 million in funding from Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

With the Rheticus platform, we want to demonstrate that artificial photosynthesis is feasible, commented Dr Thomas Haas from Evonik’s strategic research department Creavis.

Artificial photosynthesis is where CO2 and water are converted into chemicals using a combination of chemical and biological steps, in a process similar to how leaves use chlorophyll and enzymes to synthesize glucose.

Siemens and Evonik are each contributing their own core competencies to this research collaboration. Siemens is providing the electrolysis technology, which is used in the first step, to convert CO2 and water into hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO) using electricity.

Evonik is contributing the fermentation process, converting gases containing CO into useful products by metabolic processes with the aid of special micro-organisms.

Power-to-X

In the Rheticus project, these two steps – electrolysis and fermentation – are scaled up from the laboratory and combined in a technical test facility.

Rheticus brings together the expertise of Evonik and Siemens. This research project shows how we are applying the Power-to-X idea, said Dr Karl Eugen Hutmacher from the BMBF.

Using electricity to generate chemicals is an idea from the Power-to-X concept. As one of the four pillars of the Kopernikus Initiative, the idea is to help convert and store renewable, electrical energy efficiently.

At the same time, the Rheticus platform also contributes to the reduction of CO2 levels in the atmosphere, as it uses CO2 as a raw material – for example, three tonnes of CO2 would be needed to produce one tonne of butanol.

Both companies see great future potential in the Rheticus platform. It will make it simple to scale plants to the desired size – the chemical industry will be able to adapt them flexibly to local conditions. In future, they could be installed anywhere where there is a source of CO2 – for instance from a power plant or biogas facility

Its modular nature and flexibility in terms of location, raw material sources and products manufactured make the new platform attractive for the speciality chemicals industry in particular ended Dr Haas.

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