Interview with Hendrik Spod on the potential of green chemistry

Innovation drives progress - but it also poses challenges. In the Heraeus innovation experts series, Heraeus talks to innovation experts about current trends and their impact on companies. Today's topic: green chemistry.

Petroleum as a frequently used starting material for chemicals is limited, and demand for biobased alternatives is growing in the light of climate change. The sustainable production of biobased alternatives requires efficient processes with heterogeneous catalysts.

This is precisely where the Heraeus Precious Metals business unit comes in with its catalyst portfolio. Catalysts for the use of regenerative biomass or CO2 to produce chemicals are already available to make the transition from pilot projects to commercialization.

In this interview, Dr. Hendrik Spod, Head of Innovation Business Line Chemicals at Heraeus Precious Metals, explains the potential of green chemistry, Heraeus’ contribution to the circular economy, and how far the transition to a sustainable chemistry of the future has come.

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Green Chemistry

In my opinion, the green chemistry industry is currently at a crossroads.

How can the chemical industry decarbonize?

At the end of the day, every chemical product is based on a carbon-containing compound.

In order to produce these, the main task is to make optimum use of the atomic efficiencies in the process. That is the first aspect.

The second aspect is that the process itself must be run as efficiently as possible. Thus, reducing temperatures, possibly reducing pressures, and using catalysts to manufacture end products as efficiently as possible.

How do you define green chemistry?

Green chemistry can be described primarily in terms of the twelve basic principles of green chemistry.

These include: making optimum use of atomic efficiencies, avoiding waste, avoiding intermediates as far as possible, using green solvents, and optimally using a catalyst. And that is precisely where Heraeus comes in.

What is Heraeus developing in terms of green chemistry?

Heraeus is involved in various projects in the field of green chemistry, including the conversion of lignin, but also cellulose, which can be important basic building blocks to produce intermediates for the chemical industry.

We are also working on the conversion, for example, of CO2 to important end products. Our main focus is always on the development of a heterogeneous catalyst that optimally produces the end products.

How are green chemistry and the circular economy connected?

Two cycles must be considered: firstly, the product cycle, which is considered a cycle in its own right - i.e., an end product that has reached the end of its life cycle and can be reused. But there is also another separate cycle within the manufacture of each product. Heraeus supplies a small building block in the product life cycle for the manufacture of this product. And that is the catalyst. And here, too, we try to make optimum use of the cycle by recycling our precious metal, which we use to manufacture our heterogeneous catalyst. This allows us to save precious metal in total and significantly reduce our CO2 footprint for the production of the catalyst.

What is the current industry standard regarding green chemistry?

Currently, many projects are on their way from pilot scale to commercialization. In the near future, there may be various isolated projects that do not yet represent the final solution, but which show the direction in which the conversion of biobased raw materials into end products can go. Of course, these compete with existing plants and processes. But it is important to bring the products and processes to this scale now in order to be able to answer the commercial aspects for future questions in the best possible way and to show: which is the right process and what is the market focusing on?