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Oil from fossil sources is one of the key feedstocks used in the chemical industry. The test facility developed in the Rheticus project demonstrates how switching to sustainable alternatives can be successfully achieved by using CO2 as a raw material. The system converts the gas, utilizing water and electricity, into specialty chemicals in a two-stage process. The project extends the useful life of carbon, which is needed for the manufacture of many products, in line with the CCU concept and indicates innovative potential applications in the field of power-to-X. These in turn can also help to close the carbon cycle, working in a similar way to photosynthesis in the natural world.
Innovation: CO2-based specialty chemicals
The test facility is the first to combine the electrolysis of CO2 with subsequent fermentation. In the first step, the electrolyser splits carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into carbon monoxide (CO), hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) using electricity from renewable sources. The second step takes place in a bioreactor, where special microorganisms convert the synthesis gas consisting of carbon monoxide and hydrogen into butanol and hexanol. These specialty chemicals, which can normally only be manufactured by means of expensive, multistage processes, will later serve as raw materials for the production of specialty plastics, nutritional supplements or synthetic fuels, for example. In a development project launched in May 2020 as part of the German government’s Kopernikus Projects research initiative, Evonik has begun cooperating with Beiersdorf with an eye to using the products in the cosmetics industry, amongst other applications. There is also potential for further products in the future.
Efficiency: Innovative combined facility
The test facility on the site in Marl is currently under construction, with test operations due to begin in the second half of 2020. Prior to this, in an initial phase of the project, the required CO2 electrolyser and the bioreactor were developed independently of one another by Siemens and Evonik, respectively. Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is providing grant funding of around 3.5 million euros to support the second phase. The first industrial plant, based on the technology developed, could produce 10,000 tonnes of hexanol and butanol each year, thereby sequestering 25,000 tonnes of CO2. It will be at least five years before such a plant could go into operation.
Impact: Less oil, less CO2
CO2 contained in waste gases is bound as a raw material and not emitted into the atmosphere. At the same time, the approach gives the chemical industry access to an additional source of raw materials as an alternative to fossil-based options. By making use of CO2 and combining power-to-X with microbial processes, the project serves to illustrate a way in which the chemical industry can be made more climate-friendly whilst simultaneously closing the carbon cycle. Thanks to its flexible operation, this technology will also support sector coupling and grid stabilisation.