In the middle of this week, an international ministerial conference was held to prepare a global agreement against marine litter and the pollution of the environment with plastic waste. The German Chemical Industry Association (VCI) and PlasticsEurope Deutschland (PED), the association of plastics producers, are in favor of the global effort. The conference was also convened at the initiative of Germany’s environment minister to push for a global agreement ahead of the UN Environment Assembly in spring 2022.
“Plastic waste has no place in the environment. It must be collected and recycled. A global agreement against marine litter can make a valuable contribution to this. In this way, we not only protect the oceans, but also the climate. The agreement should not focus on plastics, but on consumer goods in general that are carelessly disposed of in the environment.”
– Ingemar Bühler, chief executive of PED
In March 2011, plastics associations set solutions against marine litter in motion with a global declaration. Currently, some 395 projects are underway or completed worldwide, including for better waste management, beach cleanups and educating local people. Innovative solutions for recycling and reuse of plastics play an important role in waste management. Therefore, Bühler points out, “Promoting innovative technologies for the circular economy should be a key concern in a global agreement. In the end, the aim must be to use waste to manufacture new products and thus conserve resources.”
The German chemical industry also sees a great opportunity in the recycling of plastics: “Plastics are far too good to end up as waste in the environment. If they are recycled, this reduces the use of fossil raw materials and protects the climate. This is where we need to rethink in parts: That’s why we are massively pushing complementary technologies such as chemical recycling,” adds Wolfgang Große Entrup, CEO of the VCI.
Research in the field of organic batteries
The so-called redox flow batteries (RFB) represent a promising concept for the storage of renewable electrical energy. In this type of battery, which is particularly suitable for stationary applications, the energy is stored in tanks with liquid electrolytes, while the power is determined by the area of the cells. RFBs based on vanadium salts as the energy carrier are particularly well developed. They are already used in numerous plants. However, vanadium also accounts for a significant proportion of the total cost of the battery, so cheaper alternatives are being sought.
One possibility is the transition from metal salts as energy carriers to organic molecules. Because of the wide variety of possible compounds, some of which can be produced from renewable raw materials, organic RFBs have been the subject of intensive research for several years. An important issue still to be resolved is the long-term stability of the organic energy carriers, which, unlike inorganic salts, can decompose during the electrochemical processes. A whole series of scientific questions also remain to be resolved with regard to the details of the processes at the carbon electrodes.
Over the next two years, Luis Fernando Arenas will be investigating organic redox flow batteries in Professor Thomas Turek’s research group at the Energy Storage Technologies Research Center (EST) of the Clausthal University of Technology in Goslar. Various projects on the development of vanadium-based RFBs have been carried out there in recent years, and the working group has extensive test facilities for measuring the performance data of RFB components such as electrodes, membranes and bipolar plates. The principles and methods developed in this work will now be applied to organic redox flow batteries.
Luis Fernando Arenas is a technical chemist who earned his master’s degree in 2013 from the University of Coahuila in Mexico. He then moved to the University of Southampton, where he obtained his PhD in 2017 in the renowned research group of Professor Frank C. Walsh with a thesis on RFB based on zinc and cerium.
Since then, he has continued as a visiting scientist at the University of Southampton and is a member of the Executive Committee of the Electrochemical Technology Group of the Society of Chemical Industry. He is also involved with the National Institute of Electricity and Clean Energy (INEEL) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and consults for companies in the electrochemical industry, including chlor-alkali companies in Monterrey, Mexico. In 2019, he was awarded the Schwäbisch Gmünd Prize of the European Academy of Surface Technology.
In the “H2FastCell” research project, a research team from Fraunhofer IPA and the Black Forest Campus is working with an industrial consortium to develop a robotic cell for the automated high-speed assembly of fuel cell stacks. In doing so, they are laying the foundation for industrial mass production of this emission-free technology. Hydrogen will play an important role as an energy carrier. It can be produced from renewable energies in electrolysers in a CO2-neutral way and then converted into electrical energy in fuel cells. Particularly in freight transport, fuel cells can play out their advantages over battery-electric vehicles. But there are also many future areas of application for fuel cells in the stationary sector. In the production of fuel cells, efficient cycle times and absolute precision are crucial.
The major goal is to reduce manufacturing costs in order to make the use of this technology more economical. However, this can only be achieved through scaling effects, which require fully automated plants with correspondingly high capacities. At the moment, this type of production plant is not yet available on the market, and the design of the components must also continue to be optimized with regard to automation-compatible construction.
That’s why it makes sense to start looking now for ways to manufacture them in an automated way that is suitable for mass production. This is precisely what a research team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA and the Center for Digitalization, Leadership and Sustainability Black Forest (Black Forest Campus) has set out to do in the “H2FastCell” project. Together with teams from five companies, the scientists want to develop a robotic cell by 2023 that assembles the individual layers of a fuel cell in seconds and with absolute precision.
13 minutes to the finished stack
A fuel cell stack consists of stacked layers of bipolar plates, through which hydrogen and oxygen are introduced, and membrane electrode units, in which the two chemical elements react with each other. Because this reaction only produces a voltage of one volt at most, about 400 fuel cells must be stacked on top of each other for a fuel cell engine to power a truck, for example. Precision is required here. Any deviation – even in the micrometer range – can reduce the performance of the fuel cell system.
The assembly robot, which will take over the stacking of bipolar plates and membrane electrode units in alternation in the H2FastCell research project, will therefore scan the individual layers as it grips them. Since he stacks several stacks in parallel, he can spontaneously assign a layer to the stack on which the dimensions fit best. Performance degradations are thus avoided before they occur. All this is supposed to happen so fast that it will be difficult for humans to follow the individual assembly steps with the naked eye: one second per layer. A stack composed of 400 individual fuel cells would therefore be finished after only about 13 minutes. Manually, many times that time would be needed.
Prices for fuel cells could fall
“If the throughput of the stacks is increased in this way, it will lay the foundation for the industrial mass production of fuel cells. Prices would fall and the use of fuel cells in mobile heavy-duty applications would finally become competitive,” says Friedrich-Wilhelm Speckmann of the Center for Digitized Battery Cell Production at Fraunhofer IPA. He and Erwin Groß from the Corporate Strategy and Development department at Fraunhofer IPA are leading the H2FastCell research project.
Demonstrator stacking facility at the Black Forest Campus.
By summer 2023, the research team aims to have set up a demonstrator stacking facility for automated fuel cell assembly at the Schwarzwald Campus in Freudenstadt. This facility will be available to companies for further trials, feasibility studies and validations.
“With this first project, we are laying the foundation for our future research center for biointelligent hydrogen cycle management in the Black Forest. With this, we want to make hydrogen technology usable for mobile and stationary use as an energy carrier together with companies in Baden-Württemberg.”
– Stefan Bogenrieder, Managing Director of the Black Forest Campus
The H2FastCell research project started on July 26, 2021 and is scheduled to run for two years. In addition to Fraunhofer IPA and the Black Forest Campus, five companies from Baden-Württemberg are involved: the software developer ISG Industrielle Steuerungstechnik GmbH from Stuttgart, the vacuum technology manufacturer J. Schmalz GmbH from Glatten in the northern Black Forest, the sensor producer i-mation GmbH from Rottweil, the machine and plant manufacturer teamtechnik Maschinen und Anlagen GmbH from Freiberg am Neckar, and the automation engineer WEISS GmbH from Buchen in the Odenwald. The Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Economics, Labor and Tourism is funding H2FastCell with around 2.3 million euros.
Climate protection is part of everyday life in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. The winning projects in this year’s Responsible Care competition “Our contribution to climate protection” organized by the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI) are good examples of this.
“Climate-neutral production is not just an empty phrase for the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. The projects in the Responsible Care 2021 competition are outstanding role models for how creatively and innovatively companies want to achieve this goal.”
– Wolfgang Große Entrup, VCI Chief Executive Officer
An expert jury decided on the awarding of places 1 to 3 as well as the winners of the two special categories of medium-sized companies and digitalization. Aurubis AG, Hamburg, secured first place with its project “Innovative model test for decarbonizing the copper process.” For the first time, the multi-metal company – one of the world’s largest copper recyclers – used climate-neutral hydrogen as a reducing agent in copper production in a pilot project to save significant amounts of carbon dioxide. If Aurubis succeeds in replacing the natural gas previously used as a reducing agent with hydrogen, a savings potential of 6,200 tons of carbon dioxide per year could be achieved for the anode furnace at the Hamburg plant alone. The jury is convinced that the global savings potential in metal production is huge. The use of green hydrogen is innovative and the project has a leverage effect for other metal production facilities, the statement added.
DSM Nutritional Products GmbH, Grenzach, was rewarded with second place for its “Roadmap to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” The company’s ambitious goal is to achieve climate-neutral production by 2050. To achieve this, DSM has set up a new, sustainable overall concept: With consistent analysis and planning, the company defines measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in production.
Important idea generators for this are workshops lasting several days, so-called deep dives, in which experts from all specialist areas analyze the processes and plants in detail. The jury was particularly impressed by the savings achieved to date and the involvement of employees.
Third place went to Boehringer Ingelheim Pharma GmbH & Co. KG, Ingelheim, with its project “Sustainable from start to finish”. At Boehringer Ingelheim, climate protection is integrated into everyday working life wherever possible. Employees are also brought on board, whether through the bike-to-share station for employees on the company premises or the environmentally friendly climate counter in the canteen. Green electricity is used on the plant site through a biomass power plant, solar panels and from external renewable energy sources. This holistic approach, which turns employees into micro-influencers, impressed the jury.
The SME prize was won by Dr. Babor GmbH & Co. KG, Aachen, with its project “Fully automated dashboard for the corporate carbon footprint.” This enables the company to digitize and visualize its carbon footprint in real time. At the same time, it can also identify potential for improvement and take appropriate precautions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This is an outstanding achievement by a medium-sized company, the federal jury is quick to agree.
The Digitization Award goes to BASF SE, Ludwigshafen, for its “Strategic CO2 Transparency Tool” project. In a standardized and automated process, the company calculates individual CO2 footprints for all 45,000 products – in each case from the raw material purchased to the energy used in the production processes. BASF will be able to make this data available to its customers from the end of 2021. With the help of this digital solution, it will be transparent and comprehensible how many greenhouse gas emissions are generated in the manufacturing process of a product – a huge success that the jury would like to honor.
Background to Responsible Care and the competition
Voluntarily doing more than is required by laws and regulations. This is documented by the chemical-pharmaceutical industry with its globally unique Responsible Care initiative – which has been running in Germany for 30 years. Here, Responsible Care is a contribution to the Chemie3 sustainability initiative.
The Responsible Care competition starts at the state level. This year, 92 projects were submitted to the state associations. The state winners automatically take part in the national competition. Here, the jury decided on the national winners from a total of 18 projects.
The association represents the economic policy interests of more than 1,700 German chemical and pharmaceutical companies and German subsidiaries of foreign groups vis-à-vis politicians, authorities, other sectors of industry, academia and the media. In 2020, the industry generated sales of just under 190 billion euros and employed around 464,400 people.