Photo: The CEO of BASF Española and President of FEIQUE, Carles Navarro Credits: BASF Española.
By Patricia Ruiz Guevara
How much time do we have left until the planet says enough is enough? Earth Overshoot Day marks the date by which humans will have used up the resources and ecosystem services that the planet can regenerate in a calendar year. With our way of life, that date certainly doesn't come on December 31. In 2021, it was July 29. This year, if everyone lived as the average Spanish person does, Earth Overshoot Day would have arrived today, May 12. The calendar is crucial.
“We're not sure how little time we have left to stop climate change. Time is the most finite resource we have, more than oil, gas, water, or lithium. We have 10 years to do a large part of our duties and I don't think that all companies are making progress,” says Carles Navarro Vigo (Barcelona, 1964), CEO of BASF Española and President of FEIQUE (Spanish Chemical Industry Business Federation), a chemical engineer by profession who has been working for BASF since 1989.
BASF, a century-old German chemical company founded in 1865, has seen different eras pass before its factories: that of dyes, when it began to produce dyes in the laboratory; that of synthetic fertilizers, with its Haber-Bosch process; and the era of plastics.
In recent decades, Navarro Vigo has experienced the move towards sustainability and digitalization in a sector heavily dependent on fossil fuels and raw materials. We interviewed the leading expert, who heads the list of Top 10 Committed Leaders of Multinationals in Spain according to the Coordenadas Institute of Governance and Applied Economics, to understand how the chemical industry can rely on innovation and technology to support the circular economy and energy transition.
The chemical sector is the Spanish industry that invests most in R&D (26% of the total). How has it evolved over the years thanks to innovation?
The chemical industry depends on major industrial assets and a lot of capital investment, which requires long-term planning where life cycles are very long, from 30 to 40 years. As a result, the growth of chemical plants is slow compared to other sectors, where technology seems to be implemented much faster.
Throughout this period, although changes have been slow, innovation has been a steady trend. The chemical industry is innovative in itself, it has it in its DNA; there is no chance of succeeding in the chemical industry without innovation. In this transformation, digitalization is not an end in itself, it is a resource to do things we have to do, but in a more efficient way.
Photo: Thanks to sensors and tablets with digital information, work in chemical industry plants can be safer, more efficient, and smarter. Credits: BASF SE.
What technologies would you highlight within this digital transformation?
There are parts of chemical facilities where there is no coverage: the 4G network does not reach the inside of a storage tank. But the 5G network (even more so if you have your own installation in your plant, as is the case of BASF in Tarragona) covers everything and with sensors you can obtain a lot of data that allows you to design and optimize processes.
We also use artificial intelligence for predictive maintenance. For example, in Tarragona we have a plant where we manufacture propylene that runs 24/7. To do this, it depends on a turboexpander; if it breaks down, the whole plant goes down. So, we have it connected to AI algorithms in Germany that record the sound it makes as it rotates. When there is the slightest deviation from the sound it is supposed to make when it is going perfectly, it starts a process to predict when it is going to break down that allows you to anticipate unforeseen events and order the corresponding replacement.
Photo: Facilities will be increasingly automated thanks to sensors, artificial intelligence and 5G. Credits: BASF SE.
At BASF you say that you are creating chemistry for a sustainable future. The chemical sector is the main consumer of natural gas in the Spanish industry (19% of the total) and the energy cost is very high. How do you balance this with sustainability?
The chemical industry is highly energy intensive. Some chemical processes are exothermic and release energy, but most require energy input to activate the reactions and produce heat and steam. For that we use natural gas in most plants, because of all fossil fuels it is the most efficient.
From 1990 to 2015, we have optimized our own power generation and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 45%, while doubling production. At the same time, our forecasts tell us that, in the coming years, we will need to increase primary energy consumption in our manufacturing stages.
But we all know that emissions must be reduced to zero. This means a paradigm shift: we must start moving away from fossil fuels and the key word is electrification.
What strategy can be followed to make the transition to green energy?
We have to make a superhuman effort to replace what is now more than 80% fossil energy with renewable electricity. This requires access to green energy in very large quantities that are not available right now.
For our part, we pursue a make-or-buy strategy: we invest to manufacture our own green energy, especially in offshore wind farms, and we buy renewable energy at competitive costs.
Photo: Navarro calls for a strategy that invests in both the purchase and procurement of green energy. Credits: BASF Española.
What role can green hydrogen play in this mix?
There is no doubt that hydrogen will be a key element in the planet's energy transformation process, but it will take time. We produce it and consume a million tons a year, but not as energy but as a reactant, for example, to make ammonia.
But we understand that hydrogen as an energy vector has enormous potential because it is still an alternative to natural gas.
“Turquoise hydrogen is a technology with great potential to contribute to sustainability.”
In our case, we are committed to turquoise hydrogen. We have set up a pilot project in Germany to carry out methane pyrolysis. Here, natural gas is heated to a high temperature by means of renewable electricity to produce hydrogen on the one hand and pure solid carbon on the other. No CO2 is emitted; the process is emission-neutral. It strikes us as a technology with great potential that will make a major contribution to hydrogen production; it is now in the industrial scale-up phase and has received financial support from the German government.
Photo: BASF in Ludwigshafen (Germany) is working on a new reactor concept in which hydrogen can be produced without carbon dioxide emissions from methane pyrolysis. Credits: BASF SE.
The chemical industry is a major consumer of raw materials. However, these are finite. How are you rethinking raw materials management?
We are large consumers of raw materials of many types, especially of fossil origin. However, the consumption of raw materials of this origin is low compared to the volumes that are burned as fuels; for example, only 4% of the oil extracted annually is used for the entire global production of plastics.
But we cannot continue to grow infinitely in a finite world with finite resources. Neither we nor our competitors can continue to multiply sales without being clear that there is a limit to the planet's resources and that we must commit to the circular economy.
“You can't keep growing infinitely in a finite world with finite resources.”
In Germany, at the Ludwigshafen plant, we developed the “Verbund” concept, which stands for integrated production. It is the world's largest industrial complex of any specialty, with 300 factories and more than 1,000 interconnected buildings. The by-products that come out of one production are not thrown away, they go to another where they are used as raw materials, and surplus heat from one plant provides energy to another. This allows us to make much better use of the flow of materials than if they were separate plants and results in savings of up to 500 million euros a year.
Photo: The cogeneration plants use gas to produce electricity and steam, which are then used by the complex's production plants for a wide variety of chemical processes. The photo shows the combined cycle in Ludwigshafen (Germany). Credits: BASF SE.
What about renewable or recycled raw material?
The typical raw material of renewable origin is biomass, which is available in large quantities and can be processed in a technologically very clear way to make biogas and continue the chain. There are also others, such as palm oil, under discussion for food uses, which we source from responsible cultivation and use as a precursor for more than 800 fine chemical products.
But it is recycled material that offers the greatest potential. Instead of using gas or oil from scratch, we should focus on pyrolysis oil, which comes from the chemical recycling of waste such as post-consumer packaging, mattresses, or old tires. By 2025, we want to consume 250,000 tons of recycled or renewable raw materials.
As the central link in a production chain, if the chemical industry does not take this sustainable approach, it cannot reach the next step, the producers, or the end customer.
We are a very multidisciplinary industry and are involved in all the manufacturing processes of any product in the world, often at the beginning of the value chain. How we start the process determines how it will progress, and this is where the concept of mass balance comes in.
If you consume nine tons of naphtha and one ton of pyrolysis oil, everything that comes after that is 10% recycled. You can certify this through an external audit, and you could sell it to companies that want to have that certified origin, just as is done with green energy. As we increase that proportion of recycled products, we can continue to ensure that the rest of the manufacturing process is part of the circular economy.
Photo: In the ChemCycling project BASF consumes pyrolysis oil produced at the Norwegian company Quantafuel's plant in Denmark and processes it into new chemicals using a mass-balance approach. Credits: BASF SE.
What final message would you send to companies and people who still do not understand the importance of sustainability?
The future will either be sustainable or it won't be, that's why we have to keep innovating. And that future is already here, it is just not well distributed. There are companies doing everything they can and others that are still seeing where they are going. That is a mistake and the market will point it out.
We also have to explain to people that in this process it is not enough to be proud of being a pioneer and winning; the planet is inhabited by all of us. Either we cross the sustainability finish line together or we all lose this race.
Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition.