Green chemistry: ethene from syngas

Plastic has revolutionized people's lives with its many applications. Garbage bags, plastic bottles, pipes, and much more: Without the chemical building block ethene, these plastic products would not exist. This makes it more important to produce ethene in the future in a way that is as climate friendly as possible. Heraeus is a partner in a research project that is developing a sustainable technology path to produce ethene - without fossil raw materials and with significantly lower CO2 emissions.

The gas ethene, also known as ethylene, is an indispensable basic building block of the chemical industry. Among other things, it is a starting material for the widely used plastic polyethylene, which is used for films and packaging, for example. To date, ethene has been produced almost exclusively from crude oil and other fossil raw materials. First, crude oil is thermally cracked using a process known as steam cracking, and ethene is separated in a second step. This process requires a lot of energy. Each ton of ethene produced emits around 1.12 tons of CO2.

Previous production of ethene
Previous production of ethene.

A research project in which Heraeus is involved is now aimed at the sustainable production of ethene and thus a significant reduction in CO2 emissions. "The aim is to implement an innovative, climate-friendly process for the production of ethene that is also suitable for industrial application," explains Dr. Hendrik Spod, Head of Innovation Chemicals at Heraeus Precious Metals. The Heraeus business unit is contributing the catalyst for the new process. The SynGas2Ethene project, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is being led by the Ruhr University in Bochum. Other project partners are the energy supplier RWE and Rubokat GmbH.

The project aims to produce ethene not from petroleum but directly from carbon dioxide and hydrogen. Only industrial or biogenic residues such as biomass must be used to produce synthesis gas, i.e., renewable sources of carbon. The chemical products can also be recycled back to the starting materials at the end of their life. This creates a sustainable cycle for carbon compounds - in contrast to the previous linear process based on fossil raw materials.

Our contribution: precious metal-based catalyst

A crucial step in the innovative ethene production process is catalysis. Heraeus supplies the ruthenium catalyst required for this. "Our initial trials have shown that ruthenium is particularly suitable for the catalytic conversion of synthesis gas" explains Spod. "At the end of its useful life, the catalyst and thus the ruthenium can be recycled, ensuring a complete cycle in this respect." throughout the project, the catalyst will be developed to industrial maturity. "We are proud that we can make a decisive contribution to reducing CO2emissions in the chemical industry as part of this basic research," emphasizes Spod.

The potential is immense: 150 million metric tons of ethene are produced annually. In the process, around 1.12 metric tons of CO2 are emitted per metric ton of ethene. The project partners estimate that the new technology pathway they are currently researching could save up to 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in ethene production.

Sustainable ethene production from synthesis gas on an industrial scale.
Sustainable ethene production from synthesis gas on an industrial scale.