Center for the Transformation of Chemistry
Chemistry is omnipresent in our daily lives – 97% of all products in Germany contain chemistry. The chemical industry is an important industrial sector in Germany as a whole and especially in the Mitteldeutsches Revier. It is the basis for many other economic sectors, such as the automotive and construction industries. The key challenge for the chemical industry is its dependence on fossil fuels both as an energy supplier and as a feedstock. In order to secure the supply and operation of the entire German economy, it is urgently necessary to rethink feedstocks, processes, and products and to transform the hitherto linear chemical industry, which produces large quantities of carbon dioxide as well as toxic waste and wastewater, in the long term, into a resilient circular economy that relies on renewable raw materials and recycling.
The Center for the Transformation of Chemistry (CTC) will transform chemistry into a circular economy via a interdisciplinary approach with structured cooperation between academia, industry and society!
Expansion and Reinforcement of Existing Competencies
The CTC will address one of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century and at the same time establish and expand cutting-edge research efforts that are highly attractive for skilled workers as well as partner institutions from academia and industry. This endeavor offers great potential for attracting new companies and is thus able to sustainably support the structural change in the Mitteldeutsches Revier. The large-scale research center in the Mitteldeutsches Revier reinvigorates the long tradition in the Halle/Merseburg/Bitterfeld chemistry triangle and integrates the value chains and application/demand-oriented research approaches that are very important for the energy, transportation, food and health industries as well as agriculture and mechanical engineering. By locating the CTC in the Mitteldeutsches Revier, the large-scale research center strengthens the entire innovation region affected by structural change and offers a completely new development perspective. Supporting research and development gives these sites a major advantage, as R&D is difficult to relocate or close, while production sites like those currently in the Mitteldeutsches Revier can be easily sold without endangering the corporations themselves. The Central German Chemistry Triangle and its chemical sites are thus in competition with the other chemical parks in Germany. The settlement of the CTC with its strength in the field of research and innovation, especially also with regard to digitalization and AI, will fuel corresponding R&D activities on the industrial side and make the Mitteldeutsches Revier more future-proof through spin-offs and company relocation. As an attractive working area at the interface of technology and production, the district will become a magnet for young, well-trained workers. In this way, the CTC is counteracting demographic change and the declining number of people of working age in the region.
With sales of more than €190 billion, investments of around €8.3 billion and around 464,000 employees (in each case in 2020; source: VCI), the chemical industry is one of the most important sectors of the economy in the country after the automotive industry and mechanical engineering and is by far the largest chemical industry in Europe. It is considered highly productive, innovative and internationally competitive, making Germany one of the most important industrial locations worldwide. However, chemical industry and thus all industrial locations face major challenges. Production causes high environmental pollution: The energy-intensive chemical industry is globally responsible for an estimated 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions per year – more than India’s annual emissions – and has the third-largest carbon footprint after steel and cement (source: Guardian). In Germany, the chemical and pharmaceutical industries generate about 8% of hazardous waste and almost 12% of wastewater in the entire economy (source: UBA). On one hand, this is accompanied by increasing environmental protection requirements, political uncertainties and cost increases. On the other hand, there is resistance to major investments by the local population and interest groups. In addition, there are general problems such as the shortage of skilled workers and the neglected infrastructure in some areas. As a result, German chemical companies have been investing more abroad than in Germany for several years (source: VCI 2018).
Fundamental to environmental pollution and related problems, and thus a central challenge for the chemical industry, is the dependence on fossil sources both as an energy supplier and as a raw feedstocks. Chemical processes utilizing high pressure and temperatures have high energy demands. Traditionally, these demands are met by burning oil, gas or coal. About half of the fossil fuels in chemical industry are used for energy production, thus causing the majority of direct carbon dioxide emissions. While the use of renewables as an alternative energy source can reduce emissions, the need for clean power infrastructure is enormous. Electrifying Europe’s chemical sector would require 4,900 terawatts of renewable electricity, nearly double the total amount of electricity Europe generated in 2019 (European Chemical Industry Council estimate). And even though investments in renewable energy and efficiency improvements help reduce carbon-based fuel consumption, many chemical products still cannot be de-carbonized because they are themselves made of carbon. Renewable resources such as biomass are not sufficient here as an alternative to fossil fuel-based feedstocks as a carbon source, especially since manufacturers who produce products from plants instead of fossil fuels must ensure, in turn, that they do not create new problems through deforestation, habitat destruction, rising food prices, or increased use of water or pesticides. Waste products can also be used as a source of raw materials. However, existing technologies for, for example, converting carbon-containing agricultural or plastic waste into new chemicals have not yet been tested on a large scale, and using carbon dioxide as a raw material again requires enormous amounts of energy. Therefore, it is crucial to avoid fossil fuel-based feedstocks that are currently used to produce carbon-based chemicals and materials.
In order to guarantee the supply and operation of the entire economy, safeguard our well-being and secure Germany as a business location, it is urgently necessary to rethink the ideal starting materials, processes and products and to transform the hitherto linear chemical industry in the long term into a resilient circular economy based on renewable raw materials and recycling:
- Feedstocks that currently come from the processing of oil, gas, coal or ores will have to be obtained in the future from product recycling as well as renewable sources such as biomass waste, wood or algae. New syntheses and separation processes with new reagents and catalysts must be developed and applied.
- Conversion processes must be efficient and selective, with automated reaction controlling to increase productivity. The use of artificial intelligence will fundamentally change reaction planning based on standardized conditions and the elaboration of new production routes.
- Finally, the products themselves will have to be changed to reduce the use of chemicals in production, allow longer or multiple use, and enable less costly recycling in line with the “re-duce, re-use, re-cycle” principle. Therefore, not only are new routes to known products needed, but also new recyclable products.
Only new local, cost-effective and sustainable production processes using secondary raw materials obtained through recycling and renewable raw materials will succeed in reducing resource and energy consumption. By complying with the highest occupational safety and environmental standards and drastically shortening transport routes, competitiveness and thus the resilience of the German chemical industry will be secured.