Defossilising chemical industry: from molecule to large-scale system integration

90% of raw materials used today in the EU chemical industry are still from fossil origin. The energy transition therefore has far-stretching implications for chemical companies. The industry will need to replace its traditional energy sources for sustainable ones. This need is especially urgent in the Netherlands as it is striving to become CO2 neutral by the year 2050. TU Delft initiated the e-Refinery initiative to contribute to finding technical solutions in defossilising chemical industry. Prof. Andrea Ramirez Ramirez, researcher at the faculty of TPM, is responsible for the system integration aspect of e-Refinery. Together with researchers at TPM as well as researchers at the faculties of 3mE, TNW and EEMCS, she works on insuring that a multidisciplinary and multiscale approach is incorporated in the research process.

e-Refinery

The e-Refinery initiative is unique in the fact that different faculties have joined forces in solving three important challenges that society is facing: CO2 neutral fuel, seasonal energy storage and a defossilized chemical industry. “Together we have all knowledge in place to actually help solve this challenge”, says Ramirez Ramirez. Researchers in the e-Refinery initiative focus their research on the electrochemical conversion of sustainable electricity and CO2 into fuels and chemical building blocks, from the molecular scale to large-scale system integration. This goes beyond changing the source of carbon, as the current institutional systems, logistics and value chains need to be adapted too.

System integration

“It is essential to think about system integration, right from the start of the technology development process, since we want to develop technology that is not only sustainable, but also affordable and ‘ethics proof’ so that it will be embraced by society”, says Ramirez Ramirez. “We are already capable of producing CO2 neutral fuel in a lab setting. The challenge is now how to upscale it in a sustainable way”, continues Ramirez Ramirez. This is where knowledge from TPM researchers on multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches and complex systems is most valuable. “We need to look at issues such as policy, energy infrastructure, transportation, the value chain as a whole. When we encounter hick-ups we need to track back, work with the people working in the labs, the reactor design, the power systems and go over the lifecycle assessment again until we find  sustainable  solutions”, explains Ramirez Ramirez.

Collaboration

This interdisciplinary approach of researchers from different faculties working together, learning to speak each other’s ‘language’ can be quite challenging. Initiatives as these can only flourish in a collaborative atmosphere. “Researchers need to be open for other viewpoints, treat each other with respect and also important: have a laugh together. It is my contribution to look at the entire system, from the molecular scale to large-scale system integration. That also means that I sometimes need to steer technology to ensure sustainability in the lifecycle is taken into account. This can make me a spoilsport, but at the same time it is an essential task to ensure implementation in society.  Together we can make it work, but with such an encompassing initiative, a long breath is required. Having clear milestones and celebrating in between results keeps us motivated”, remarks Ramirez Ramirez.