Image ANP – editing Studio V

    Driving on the A15 past Pernis and the Botlek, you will pass a forest of steel and concrete, an industrial wilderness of chimneys, pipelines and hydrocrackers. Here on the fringes of the Netherlands, petroleum is converted into petrol, kerosene and diesel. Chemical plants produce benzene, ethylene oxide, propylene oxide and styrene monomers. This is where the basic materials are made that are used by companies elsewhere for the production of, for example, mattresses, insulation material and sports shoes.

    The challenge

    Pernis, with its chemical industry, is the nursery of the Netherlands and Germany BV. But the petrochemical installations are also a major source of CO2. Every year, the chimneys here release almost 4.5 million tons into the atmosphere, almost 3 percent of the Dutch total.

    Everyone knows that things have to be done differently. The oil bath on which Pernis floats will have to dry up in the coming decades, so that the Netherlands can be CO2-free by 2050. But the country does not want to become chemical-free in the least. Because even three decades from now, there will be a demand for mattresses and sports shoes. And probably also to fuels, for example for aviation, which by then probably will not be able to do without kerosene.

    The plan

    No petroleum is needed for the production of plastics and fuels. Biomass can also be a raw material. Even the damned CO2 is potentially a raw material.

    Chemistry is possible without fossils. How? With sustainable sources. By splitting water with green electricity into hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) and the carbon (C) from CO2 to pick, is formed together with nitrogen (N2) the same chemical Lego kit that is now filled with petroleum. With the basic components H, N and C, the chemical industry can in principle make the same products as now, such as methanol, ethylene and kerosene – but then fossil-free.

    Imagine how Pernis can eventually become a sustainable oasis, where flare installations no longer illuminate the night, but where softly buzzing, shiny installations produce sustainable chemical raw materials.

    How realistic is this vision? Very realistic, says Ruud van Ommen, professor of chemical technology at TU Delft. Van Ommen specializes in reactors that can convert CO2 into fuels and chemicals. This is done on a small scale in his lab at TU Delft. Van Ommen and fellow scientists conduct fundamental research into how these reactors can be scaled up from molecular level to industrial giants. At TU Delft, among others, this is being worked on in a research program called e-Refinery.

    The laboratory

    Researcher Anca Anastasopol shows such an e-reactor in the Delft labs, where various set-ups are set up in ascending format. The device resembles a plant press for a herbarium, but made of an aluminum alloy. Where the flour is normally compressed, there is now a catalyst that has to speed up the reaction to make new chemical raw materials from the basic molecules.

    Reactors of this type are similar to a battery you see in electric cars, says Anastasopol. Also in a battery the reaction takes place between two thin plates, several of which are placed one behind the other. The big difference is that a battery is a closed system, while the Delft catalysts are open: ‘raw material molecules’ have to go in and ‘product’ out. This makes the reaction process more complex.

    The reactor may work well in the lab, but there are enough scientific challenges to make it large enough for industrial scale and still keep it efficient, says Van Ommen. For example, how do you keep the process temperature constant everywhere: the reactor cools down more on the outside than on the inside, which influences the reaction.

    In order to increase production, the reactor can be made larger, but this also increases the technological challenges. You can also put them one after the other, in so-called stacks† But even that cannot go on indefinitely, says Van Ommen. On an industrial scale you have to look for the optimum. After all, space is not unlimited.

    The fact that the researcher talks about costs in his lab may not be entirely new to the scientific world, but it is striking. There is no other way, says Van Ommen. When you work on industrial applications, costs ultimately play a role.

    A researcher can develop the perfect reactor, but if it requires large amounts of rare iridium, it may become too expensive. Van Ommen: ‘Now someone often comes up with a nice invention, publishes the research in a scientific journal and throws it over the fence, after which others just have to see if they can come up with an application for it.’ That has to change, especially because it has to be faster. That is why various scientific disciplines have been brought together in Delft. So also in the initial phase, earthly matters such as costs are looked at.

    Another challenge: an enormous amount of electrical energy is needed for electrical refining, says John van der Schaaf, professor of chemical engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology and not involved in the project. If we want to reach the scale of a refinery, he calculates, tens of gigawatts of power are needed.


    If the petrochemical industry wants to be converted in time to climate-neutral operations, the sooner equipment is available, the better. After all, the industry works with huge installations that require billions of dollars of investment and that last for decades. The sooner a part can be electrified, the greater and longer-lasting the effect of the lower CO2 emissions.

    In recent years, the Delft researchers have already been able to increase the production of their reactors, with ever larger installations. Now they face a new challenge: how do you make the jump to the ‘real’ work? How do you build a real demonstration factory from the lab, or even a fully-fledged installation?

    ‘Scaling up to industrial scale is new territory for us’, says Van Ommen. The costs and risks increase with every step towards technological perfection. The university cannot bear this risk. In fact, here you leave the field of fundamental research, says Van Ommen, and enter the field of commerce. That is why collaboration has been sought with research institute TNO, which has experience with industrial upscaling and has a branch on the Delft campus.

    ‘We looked at the entire concept together,’ says Martijn de Graaff of the VoltaChem research branch of TNO, which specializes in electrochemistry. ‘Just say from a researcher’s brilliant idea, to a working industrial-scale factory that can produce at high volumes for years.’

    The factory

    To go from the first idea to a factory, nine steps are taken of technological perfection, which technology readiness level (TRL) is called. The first four steps – from idea to first small-scale tests – are carried out at TU Delft. TNO then prepares the technology for the market (steps four to six).

    In the old world, each step higher takes about four years, says De Graaff. That time is not here. To accelerate development, researchers from various stages are working together. De Graaff: ‘No one can do this entire process alone. Also because of the urgency, the research has to be done in parallel.’

    The last two steps – building real chemical plants – has to be done by the industry itself. But then the role for TNO and TU Delft is not yet over, thinks De Graaff. He envisions the emergence of a completely new industry that develops and produces these installations. Just say the squatters and stoves of today, but electrically. ‘Similar to ASML. The Netherlands has a small chip industry, but with ASML it is the global market leader in the field of machines that produce chips. We have an advantage in the electrochemical field, if we play this well, there are opportunities.’

    The industry

    ‘If we want to maintain our standard of living and other parts of the world also become more prosperous, electrification of chemistry is crucial,’ says professor Van der Schaaf. It is possible, he says: there is potentially enough sustainable energy available worldwide to make all these processes greener. Van der Schaaf thinks it is sensible to tackle the energy branch of chemistry first, because that is by far the greatest CO2 intensity.

    This is also happening: around 2030, the first pilot factory should appear in the Botlek. Three sustainable raw materials that are in high demand will first be made there: methanol, ethylene and kerosene. Customers can use these in their existing thermochemical installations. The industry can therefore choose which route is most interesting for it, says De Graaff.

    It is even possible that the basic raw materials are produced in countries with a lot of sustainable energy, to be transported from there to Rotterdam and used to make useful products. The first plans are already there: tank storage company Vopak recently announced that it wants to build installations in the port for the storage of sustainably produced ammonia, a potentially important energy carrier.

    Oil-free chemistry

    If oil is no longer needed, the appearance of the port of Rotterdam may change, says professor Van der Schaaf. Suppose, he says, that in the future industry will be connected to the hydrogen backbone, a large pipeline that transports green hydrogen from the coast inland, or from North Africa to Europe. ‘Then distillation of oil, as we know it now, might be superfluous.’

    Because fuels made from hydrogen are also literally much cleaner, desulphurisation installations are no longer necessary. The entire chain is changing, says the professor. This is a challenge for the petrochemical industry, which even manages to make useful use of waste products such as tar (‘we must find an alternative to asphalt’) and fuel oil (‘the ultimate waste pit’).

    It is possible that part of the industry will relocate to countries with a lot of sustainable energy and the products will then be transported to Rotterdam by ship. Whether this is happening and at what rate is unknown. But all processes to make the chemical industry more sustainable have been shelved, says Van der Schaaf. But the investments are huge. ‘The costs are so immense that in this first phase you see risk-averse behavior in companies. Nobody wants to bet on the wrong horse.’ He thinks the government should step in, for example with subsidies from the CO2 tax.

    If development continues, the appearance of the port of Rotterdam will change in the coming decades. Or in the spring of 2050, parents with young children will be walking in the leafy harbor park Pernis – nobody knows. But, the researchers believe, it is a nice image to aim for.

    Surfing the green waves

    Another difference between old and new: the old petrochemical industry has only two modes: on and off. And preferably on, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Then these installations run most efficiently. But if electricity is the main source of energy in the future, there will be fluctuations in the supply. Sometimes there is a lot of green energy and sometimes little. With ‘a lot’ electricity is cheap, with little it is expensive. Electrical installations can move more easily on the energy waves. ‘We are looking at the role of a fluctuating power supply,’ says Van Ommen. By playing with the so-called process intensity, you can make optimal use of cheap power surpluses, while in times of shortage and high prices, the button goes down. ‘In this way you make your energy consumption part of the revenue model,’ says the researcher.