Can we make petroleum

Alternative resources : "We have to move away from the crude oil monoculture"

What do plastic bottles, bicycle helmets, toothpaste, paints, notebooks, car fittings and medicines have in common? They consist to a large percentage of so-called cut-resistant crude oil. For the manufacture of these products, the industry relies on a fairly small set of precursor substances that come directly from petrochemicals.

In 2018, 113 million tons of crude oil were consumed in Germany alone, around 1.25 tons of crude oil per inhabitant. According to figures from the Mineral Oil Industry Association, we only use around 20 percent of the oil as a starting point for products from the chemical industry. We burn 60 percent of the oil alone: ​​in the form of diesel, gasoline, kerosene or even liquefied petroleum gas. We use another 20 percent for heating.

Different solutions have to be found for the different applications

Not only since the Fridays for Future movement has it been called for to reduce the consumption of fossil raw materials such as crude oil, natural gas or coal. The ubiquity of oil in our everyday lives makes it clear: There will not be one solution for all applications: "We have to get away from the crude oil monoculture with which we meet the needs for mobility, energy and chemical materials today," says Reinhard Schomäcker , Professor for Reaction Engineering at the TU Berlin: “Different solutions have to be found for the different applications. The energy transition and the raw material transition can only be thought of together. "

Here, above all, science is challenged to identify new sources of energy and raw materials as alternatives. Accordingly, research at the TU Berlin is broadly based: From basic research to application, many scientists are committed to conserving natural resources.

"Materials chemistry produces almost all the necessary hydrocarbon materials from ten to 20 components of the crude oil," says Reinhard Schomäcker. Replacing these with other, non-crude oil-based substances - for example biomass - "is theoretically possible," says the researcher. All products that are made from fossil raw materials today can potentially also be made from biomass.

One problem with biomass - it is wet

Ultimately, many years ago crude oil was also biomass. The only question is, with what effort and therefore at what cost. “Today we work with crude oil, not least because during the millions of years in which mineralization took place, many processing steps were already anticipated: One problem with biomass - it is wet. In the fossil raw materials, not only the water was largely removed, but also so-called hetero-atoms such as nitrogen or sulfur. That makes further processing a lot easier than that of biomass. "

This is exactly where the InPROMPT Collaborative Research Center comes into play. Matthias Kraume, specializing in process engineering, is at home: “We are concerned with how long-chain hydrocarbons from biomass can be integrated as directly as possible into common process chains in the chemical industry, without having to laboriously rework and process them beforehand. To this end, we develop liquid multiphase systems from the mini-plant to the elaboration of large-scale process concepts. "

In addition to the engineers, Reinhard Schomäcker's employees are also involved in the production of so-called platform chemicals - precursor products for the chemical industry. "In addition to bio-based raw materials, we are also researching the oxidative coupling of methane, an inert component of natural gas, in order to produce the valuable raw material ethylene, which has previously had to be extracted from crude oil," says Reinhard Schomäcker.

Mobility as an important factor in the raw material and energy transition

In addition to the chemical industry, mobility is an important factor in the raw materials and energy transition. Above all, electromobility requires clean and efficient ways of storing and converting energy. "Renewable electricity from the sun or wind is not yet capable of base load capacity today and cannot cover the constant main load of German electricity demand due to the fluctuating amount and consumption," says Prof. Dr. Peter Strasser, Professor of Technical Chemistry at the TU Berlin. “On the one hand, we need more efficient batteries to store the excess energy in the short term.” Chemical energy storage in the form of liquid or gaseous molecules is suitable for long-term storage.

In this approach, hydrogen is highly traded. Water is split into hydrogen and oxygen by means of electrolysis. In a coupled fuel cell, the electrical energy from the hydrogen can be released again through a direct electrochemical conversion without combustion. The technology exists on a pilot plant scale, but: “What is required is a large-scale water electrolysis in the gigawatt range, combined with fuel cell technology,” explains Peter Strasser.

The scientist and his team are currently working on the use of rare metals in these technologies: “In hydrogen fuel cells, platinum is used as a catalyst, in modern water electrolysers, iridium - the rarest metal on earth. Assuming the installation of water electrolysers in the gigawatt range, the price of iridium could explode. As part of our research, we are looking for strategies to reduce the use of these metals or to avoid them altogether and to optimize the efficiency of the processes at the same time. "

Biogas as an alternative?

Biogas plants are also being discussed as suppliers of renewable energy and have one major advantage: their substrates can be stored. "This enables a base load capable energy production independent of environmental influences", says Matthias Kraume. Biomass currently provides around half of all renewable energies in Germany. “It would make sense to flexibly adapt the generation of energy from biogas to the weather conditions. Among other things, we are researching how the highly sensitive microbial community of biogas plants can be adapted to variable production conditions, ”says the process engineer.

New research results must be meaningfully embedded in existing structures if they are to be used. The energy and resource management scientists at the TU Berlin are working on this topic of the energy and raw materials transition. “As part of the large interdisciplinary Kopernikus project Energy Transition Navigation System (ENavi), the focus is on the effects of the energy transition on the gas supply. How can, for example, replace natural gas with biogas, what contribution can the existing infrastructure make or what new infrastructure is needed? ” Joachim Müller-Kirchenbauer from the TU Berlin. In a second sub-project, the scientists analyzed how the energy transition is changing the structure of the energy sector.

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