Resource-friendly methanol production
With new procedures, Marek Chęciński wants to considerably improve the climate footprint in the production of the chemical
Methanol’s carbon footprint is abysmal. Marek Chęciński has now developed a procedure for producing this important substance in a more resource-efficient way. A pilot plant is currently being built in Adlershof, and larger ones could soon follow – on the coast, for example.
Methanol is seen as a viable option for making certain industries more climate-friendly and better for the environment, including the carbon-based chemical industry or sectors that are hard to electrify like heavy goods transportation. More than anyone else, the shipping industry is bent on moving away from heavy fossil fuel oils since their combustion produces many pollutants, including oxidised soot, nitrogen and sulphur oxides. Due to the long distances, battery-powered propulsion is inconvenient and shipowners are increasingly focusing their hopes on methanol. However, methanol, too, often comes from fossil resources, so getting it from “green sources” would be a considerable improvement.
The chemist Marek Chęciński aims at contributing to this. For years, he has been using computers to develop his idea of producing more resource-saving methanol. He did so with his company CreativeQuantum GmbH and in research collaborations with C1 Green Chemicals AG, a company he founded specifically to help commercialisation, which is now building a pilot plant in Adlershof. The aim here is to demonstrate that the procedure can be economically viable on an industrial scale. Soon, he hopes, industrial plants will follow, for example on the coast.
“Our concept differs enormously from the standard procedure before,” says the entrepreneur. This used catalysts made of copper and zinc and had to meet certain demands to get the reaction going at all, including a temperature of 280 degrees Celsius and a pressure of 80 bar. Still, one run-through only managed to transform around 10 percent of the synthesis gas into methanol. Based on managenese, the new catalyst developed by Chęciński and his team requires only 130 degrees, less than 40 bar, and achieves almost full conversion in one go. “This saves a lot of raw material and energy.” Moreover: Instead of extracting synthesis gas from natural gas or coal gasification, it is planned to obtain it from waste sources such as organic waste, sewage sludge, or plastic waste.
Hydrogen, which is also required for the reaction, should also be “green”, i.e., gleaned from renewable energy sources. “Coastal regions with lots of wind and agricultural production would be a great location for production,” says Chęciński. He thinks of more than ships when it comes to propulsion with climate-friendly methanol. The gas is an important basic chemical for things like plastics. “If we are successful in producing green methanol at an industrial scale, many processes could be converted to it and the industry’s carbon footprint would be significantly improved.
When speaking to him, it is clear that he is driven by a vision. But it’s more than that: He has already taken several important steps, and more are likely to follow. This can also be measured by the many millions of venture capital that C1 Green Chemicals AG has procured as well as the recruitment of Jürgen Hambrecht, former head of the industry leader BASF, for its supervisory board. Only a few days prior, it became public that the shipping company Maersk is also investing in C1.
“Of course, large chemical corporations were also investigating how to improve methanol production,” says Chęciński, and adds with a chuckle: “But we in Adlershof were the ones that made it happen.” By going down a new path. Instead of carrying out many costly experiments in laboratories, CreativeQuantum – which Chęciński founded in Adlershof 15 years ago – started using computer simulations to identify the most promising reactions and the catalyst properties required for them. In doing so, he was able to convince and commission the Leibniz Institute for Catalysis, where he previously completed his PhD, to conduct the real-life experiments. This was followed by a joint research project and the filing of a patent.
“It was clear: We are on the right path,” says the scientist. What was also clear was that the next steps were to be big and expensive and would require additional experts. For that reason, he founded C1 Green Chemicals AG, an incorporated company. The Green Chemicals partis self-explanatory, but C1 stands for the carbon atom in methanol (CH3OH). It already has a dozen employees with many more to follow.
While the methanol pilot plant will be based in Adlershof, the company is also working on a mobile version in order to test various raw materials at their respective points of origin. This year marks the 100th anniversary of commercial methanol production. “That was a huge breakthrough back then,” says Chęciński. “Now it’s time to switch to a more resource-saving and sustainable procedure.”
Ralf Nestler for Adlershof Journal