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[INTERVIEW] How does ACHEMA Address the Chemical Industry’s Key Targets of Sustainability?

[INTERVIEW] How does ACHEMA Address the Chemical Industry’s Key Targets of Sustainability?
Dr. Björn Mathes, Member of the Board of DECHEMA Ausstellungs-GmbH (Credit: Markus Püttmann)

ACHEMA, the world forum for the process industries opens its door next week (August 22-26) in Frankfurt, Germany, with a particular focus on sustainability. Dr. Björn Mathes, a Member of the Board of DECHEMA Ausstellungs-GmbH, gave his insights about what to expect from the fair and how the process and chemical industries are preparing for becoming climate-neutral.

Europe aims to become climate-neutral by 2050. The chemical industry, like other industrial sectors, must therefore transform in order to meet this target. But the chemical industry does not often rhyme with ecology. So how is the sector getting prepared to drastically change?

Dr. Björn Mathes: Actually, we would beg to differ, chemical industry and ecology go hand in hand. The chemical industry has long since undertaken tremendous efforts and managed to solve many environmental issues of the past quite successfully. For example, as early as the 1990s, the chemical industry managed to decouple its growth from energy consumption and actually decreased its overall energy consumption by 27% while increasing production by 43%, between 1990 and 2006.

And if you don´t mind me saying better than other industries and far better than public opinion gives them credit for. 

We know because as organizers of ACHEMA, the world forum and leading show for the process industries, these topics have been with us as early as the 1970s and are gaining ever more importance show after show. So, we believe the sector is well prepared to continue its transformation and if anything was still missing, ACHEMA would certainly be a good place to look for it.  

What are the major obstacles today? How can the sector overcome these?

Dr. Björn Mathes: What people have to understand is that the chemical industry is very capital intensive, meaning that the sector requires large initial investments in plants, machinery, and equipment for production. 

So, two major obstacles to overcome are: first, how to make the green transformation happen while using or building upon as much of the existing plant infrastructure already in place today. And second: how to make the business plans for new investments attractive or even stable enough for approval.

One way is to find smart circular solutions and closed loops where linear models and open loops are still prevalent that actually work for the consumer. Another is from the regulatory side to increase the planning certainty for new, green investments and to find models that financially support technology investments that are sustainable but not profitable. 

The main message is: just like any other sector, the chemical industry cannot overcome this all by itself, society and our understanding of value creation need to transform along with it.   

“The chemical industry has long since undertaken tremendous efforts and managed to solve many environmental issues of the past quite successfully” (Credit: iStock)

Who are the players already involved in the transformation of the sector?

Dr. Björn Mathes: Rather than putting any one player in the spotlight, let me tell you why we chose INSPIRING SUSTAINABLE CONNECTIONS as the leading theme for ACHEMA 2022. I believe it is a pretty safe bet that nearly all of our 2.200 exhibitors from 50 countries around the world contribute in some way, shape, or form. With their ingenuity and ultimately their innovations at display at ACHEMA, they contribute a great deal to the green transformation of the industry.

Throw in the around 600 speakers delivering the most comprehensive update on the latest research results, best practice showcases, and future trend insights available to the industry. Just imagine the potential of all of this knowledge being in one place for five days! 

It would all be in vain, however, if we didn´t also have the participants from the industry there embracing innovation, sharing their ideas and requirements, asking challenging questions, and giving feedback to push innovation even further. Around 145.000 visitors from 150 countries joined us in 2018 and it is high time we bring everyone back for ACHEMA 2022.   

What will the process industry of tomorrow look like?

Dr. Björn Mathes: The term ‘process industry’ is very broad and serves as a parenthesis for a heterogeneous score of very diverse industries ranging from chemical to biotechnology processes, from mass-produced commodities to personalized medicine catered to the needs of certain patient arrays or even individuals. However, having said this, a common denominator seems to be that digital and sustainable are major change drivers in both industries. Beyond that and certainly amplified by recent global shocks like the COVID pandemic or the Russian attack on Ukraine, capabilities like flexibility, agility and resilience will also play a strong role. 

What about hydrogen? How important this topic will be during the fair?

Dr. Björn Mathes: Hydrogen will be the main topic of the first ACHEMA Congress day this year, with lots of Congress sessions ahead and many interesting discussions on the EY Innovation Stage. Furthermore, a lot of exhibitors show technologies that will help to achieve a green hydrogen future.

More specifically, is the sustainable chemistry sector ready for an industrial scale?

Dr. Björn Mathes: Absolutely! Just look at the speed at which food packaging innovation unfolded as soon as consumer preferences matured. Or consider that there are now everyday products like mattresses available on the market that actually have a negative carbon footprint. As soon as sustainable chemistry innovations find acceptance, they will take off for sure. 

What new chemical products that are harmless to the environment can be created? 

Dr. Björn Mathes: All approved chemical products are by definition safe to use and harmless for the environment when used and handled appropriately. However, the production of oil-based chemicals is energy-intensive, takes up scarce natural resources, and turns them into valuable products that are – unfortunately – oftentimes only used once. Therefore, the emphasis is on reducing resource consumption and carbon emissions along the product lifecycle, and there are many ways to do that. Sometimes by collecting them after consumption and re-using or re-/up-/down-cycling them rather than just discarding them. And sometimes by finding other, often bio-based alternatives with similar functions and properties.     

The use of water resources, and how to better save it during industrial processes, is also important in the future. The chemical industry manages tons of water every year. How will the sector deal with that in the future, when the resource is limited?

Dr. Björn Mathes: “Tons” is actually an understatement, water usage is indeed a lot higher than that. Water is actually used in many different ways and qualities in process industries, like for cooling, as part of the process, or even part of the product if we think of injectable medicine, for example. 

However, it is important to know that water is actually reused and recycled over and over again in the process and often put back into (usually) rivers cleaner than when it was taken. Or in areas where Zero Liquid Discharge concepts are in place all water is recovered. 

In industrial applications, that usually means that water is not scarce but may have to be prepared for the intended use and sometimes cleaned or cooled after usage and contaminants have to be reduced to solid waste. So yes, you will find a lot of innovation, know-how, and technology about industrial water management at ACHEMA but that will look very different from the technology you use at home.  

How must the process industry evolve in order to become greener and climate-neutral?

Dr. Björn Mathes: In order to achieve the global net zero target, i.e. the reduction of CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050, investments of 4.5 trillion US dollars would be necessary – annually, mind you.

And a considerable portion of this has to be spent on technical solutions and systems. Otherwise, we cannot fulfill our goals in the following areas of focus: energy generation, energy efficiency, grids and storage, and finally sustainable fuels such as hydrogen and carbon capture technologies. 

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