acatech and DECHEMA present a meta-analysis on the transformation of the chemical industry. It shows that the defossilisation of the industry will rely on hydrogen used as an energy carrier and a raw material.
The chemical industry uses fossil resources such as natural gas not only for energy generation but also as a raw material. So to decarbonise, the industry will have to replace fuels and also switch to an alternative raw material base. An analysis published by acatech and DECHEMA on hydrogen use in the chemical industry compares several scenarios from different research institutions. It shows that in order to use fewer fossil resources, the chemical industry can employ hydrogen and its derivatives not only as a fuel but also as a raw material. "According to the scenarios, the hydrogen demand of the chemical industry could at least double by 2050. Some scenarios model increases in demand by factors of 5 to 7,", said Jens Artz, project manager at DECHEMA, Gesellschaft für Chemische Technik und Biotechnologie e.V., describing one result of the comparison. "In order to be able to offer these quantities of hydrogen, it will be essential that enough affordable green electricity is available," predicts Andrea Lübcke, project manager at acatech, National Academy of Science and Engineering. "The defossilisation of the chemical industry will also rely on the connection of industrial sites to gas networks for hydrogen and CO2 and to the electricity grid."
Lipstick, carpeting or detergents - the end products of the chemical industry are as numerous as they are diverse and it is impossible to imagine our everyday lives without them. What they all have in common is that fossil resources such as naphtha and natural gas not only play an important role in their production in terms of fuel, but also as the starting point for the materials used in the products. For example, naphtha is employed to produce ethylene and propylene, which in turn are important starting materials for plastics production.
Chemical industry hydrogen needs
The chemical industry in Germany had a hydrogen demand of 37 terawatt hours in 2021. This corresponds to around 1.1 million metric tons. The shift away from fossil resources may lead to hydrogen requirements increasing in the future. The scenarios examined in the meta-analysis project hydrogen demand in the year 2050 to be between 80 and 283 terawatt hours. This enormous range results from the scenarios weighting the different applications of hydrogen differently. Despite these differences, most scenarios examined expected the following hydrogen applications:
The current fossil-based hydrogen demand of 1.1 million tons must be met. For example, the production of ammonia in Germany requires about 0.4 million metric tons of hydrogen, which is currently mainly produced from natural gas. These demands will remain in future years and should be covered by carbon-neutral instead of fossil-based hydrogen.
Fischer-Tropsch synthesis and the expansion of methanol-to-X processes are suitable for replacing fossil raw materials. These processes also rely on hydrogen and could thus use carbon-neutral hydrogen. Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, for example, produces synthetic naphtha, which can replace fossil naphtha as the chemical industry's main material feedstock.
The chemical industry has a high demand for process heat. Required temperatures range from 300 to 1 000 degrees Celsius. In the future, hydrogen or synthetic methane could be used to generate this heat. "Process heat from hydrogen (or derivatives) will be particularly relevant where there are no electric or biomass-based alternatives to this," says Artz.
In order to close material cycles and reduce the need for fossil raw materials, recycling rates for plastics waste will have to be increased. If plastics waste is used as a raw material, production rates of virgin plastic can decline. Today, around 65 percent of plastic waste is still incinerated for energy recovery. In order to use plastic waste as a material and thus substitute fossil resources, reprocessing with hydrogen may be necessary. The same applies to the reprocessing of biogenic residues.
Conversion to hydrogen and its derivatives leads to higher energy requirements
In 2021, the chemical industry in Germany consumed around 450 terawatt hours of energy. This accounts for more than 20 percent of total national industrial energy consumption. DECHEMA and acatech’s meta-analysis makes it clear that all the scenarios studied model an increase in final energy demand as a result of decarbonisation.
Switching to renewable hydrogen reduces greenhouse gas emissions
Every year, the chemical industry is responsible for up to 112 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. This takes into account all direct and indirect emissions resulting from the production, use or disposal of chemical products. "There is a large potential here for emissions reductions, which must be exploited quickly in order to implement the Paris climate agreement" said Lübcke.
Analysis on hydrogen use in the chemical industry is part of the H2-Compass meta-analysis
The analysis on hydrogen use in the chemical industry published today is part of a meta-analysis conducted by acatech and DECHEMA as part of their joint H2-Compass project. The meta-analysis brings together a large number of different studies and scenarios on the future use of hydrogen – in the individual sectors and overall.
New acatech HORIZONS publication makes hydrogen easily understandable
acatech publishes acatech HORIZONS: Hydrogen on 18 April 2023.
The current HORIZONS issue provides a fact-based yet easy-to-understand overview of hydrogen and the future hydrogen economy.