Plasma technology is a game changer when it comes to electrifying processes in the chemical industry. In the Brightsite Plasma Lab, a consortium of businesses and research institutes is setting to work on a sustainable plasma nitrogen chemistry project. Thanks to the recently awarded Mission-driven Research, Development and Innovation (or MOOI in Dutch) subsidy, the next four years will see real progress on the development of plasma technology in this area.
‘‘Plasma technology has the potential to electrify chemical processes, making it one of the options being explored by Brightsite within the compass of its “Emission reduction through electrification” programme line’, explains Hans Linden, Programme Manager at Brightsite. ‘Here in the Brightsite Pharma Lab, we are focusing on a range of applications using both carbon-based and nitrogen-based molecules. Plasma technology, for example – which uses electricity from sustainable sources – can convert methane into hydrogen and high-grade hydrocarbons without releasing any CO2. In addition, nitrogen fixation is a second pillar of our research in the Brightsite Plasma Lab and it is for this that we have been awarded the MOOI subsidy’, Linden adds.
Participants in the Kick-off meeting at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus
Sustainable nitrogen chemistry project
‘The name of this project is SuN-Chem (Sustainable Nitrogen Chemistry by Plasma Technology for Circular Fertilizers and Fine Chemicals) and it is intended to serve as the initial steps in creating a circular production process to create nitrogen-based building blocks for plastics and fertiliser. Plasma technology in the area of nitrogen-based molecules is evolving rapidly, so we are delighted to have been awarded the MOOI subsidy for our project, which will enable us to make great strides over the next four years.
The key focus of the project is on developing the technology and examining how it relates in terms of efficiency, productivity, safety, acceptability and financially to the Haber-Bosch process that is currently used for the chemical synthesis of ammonia (NH3). We will start on a small scale with a low Technology Readiness Level (TRL), with the aim of getting the technology to between TRL 4 (laboratory scale) and TRL 6 (bench scale) by the end of the four years. The next step will be to develop it into a pilot plant and ultimately up to industrial scale, which could take us 10 years’, Linden says.
The project is being implemented by a consortium of nine participants, with Brightsite partners Maastricht University (UM), TNO, Sitech and Brightlands Chemelot Campus being supported by the DIFFER research institute and four end users: BASF, Evonik Industries, Stamicarbon and VitalFluid. ‘It’s great that we already have four end users on board. Obviously, it’s interesting for them to be involved in the development from the very start. They can also help us define the prerequisites if we want to come up with industrial applications in due course‘, explains Project Manager Wilbert Derks. ‘While UM and DIFFER primarily have a role to play in small-scale processes, TNO will be able to add value when it comes to scaling things up to TRL 6. Sitech represents the engineering process and the safety studies required for UM’s 10 kW lab setup. We will then adapt this to applications for the TNO bench scale at 50 kW and the Sitech pilot plant at 500 kW.’
What is plasma technology?
Plasma technology has the potential to electrify chemical processes with (green) energy and produce raw materials for the chemical industry without releasing CO2. Plasma is also referred to as the fourth state of matter, alongside solid, liquid and gas. When a gas is introduced into a sufficiently strong electric field, it enters a state in which gas particles ionise. This ionised gas comprises gas molecules and reactive particles such as ions, electrons and radicals. This combination of reactive particles allows (new) chemical reactions to take place. The temperature is extremely high at the heart of this electric flame, the heart of the plasma cloud. Molecules are very quick to split and form in these conditions. And the fact that a plasma is generated using electrical energy means that the process is sustainable when green electricity is used.
The MOOI subsidy is intended for energy and climate innovations relating to electricity, the built environment and industry. It is part of the Topsector Energie (TSE) subsidy programme, which covers collaborative projects with a multidisciplinary (integrated) approach. The scheme offers opportunities specifically for new innovations that are not yet mature enough for a commercial market launch, but which may result in an initial application/demonstration in a practical setting within five to ten years. The Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO) is the subsidy provider.
Brightsite Plasma Lab
Brightsite Plasma Lab opened in 2021. This unique lab is a place where Brightsite partners UM, TNO and Sitech will work together with students and businesses from the chemical industry to optimise existing plasma technology and develop new plasma processes. By combining the possibilities presented by plasma technology in Brightsite Plasma Lab with innovative, state-of-the-art technologies and by also conducting fundamental research we expect to be able to make some significant breakthroughs in terms of sustainability. High-quality conversion of methane is one of Brightsite’s pillars when it comes to plasma technology. Other opportunities for the future are also being explored. ‘Plasma technology can be used not only for methane valorisation but also within the nitrogen chain for the production of fertiliser and plastics. As we see it, it’s an efficient chemical process technology based on green electricity’, Linden concludes. The lab currently houses three systems for investigating new chemical processes and scaling them up to a commercial plant situation, comprising a 10-kW lab setup for basic research, a 50-kW bench scale setup for applied research and a 500-kW pilot plant for demonstrating the process around the clock.