Brightsite is taking plasma technology – one of the most important ways of reducing CO2 emissions – to the next level. For example, plasma technology can be used to make hydrogen from methane without CO2, while also forming useful hydrocarbon compounds. This process involves heating to a high temperature using an electrical plasma flame, instead of natural gas. Brightsite has established a new consortium and a new plasma lab with the aim of optimizing existing plasma technology, developing new plasma processes and taking an important step towards the ultimate circular chemistry.
In order to achieve the climate goals, CO2 emissions must be reduced significantly. That much is clear, but it will not be easy. Because it is important to be economical with green energy, Brightsite chooses to focus on an efficient process like plasma technology. “The route we have chosen involves focusing on electrical processes for splitting and synthesizing molecules. Plasma technology is the key technology here and enables us to produce circular hydrocarbons and hydrogen,” says Arnold Stokking, Managing Director of Brightsite.
Plasma technology is not new. The Hüls process, in which methane is converted to hydrogen and acetylene, dates back to the last century and has been used commercially in Germany for many years. Plasma technology has the potential to make all kinds of processes more sustainable. Several important applications, based on both carbon- and nitrogen-containing molecules, are in sight. Using plasma technology means that, in future, it will be possible to optimize the use of methane by converting it into raw materials for polymers and hydrogen, for example, without releasing CO2. Methane is also becoming increasingly available from sources other than fossil natural gas, for example biomethane or methane as a by-product of (electric) naphtha crackers.
Subsidy underscores importance of electrification and our chosen route
Brightsite has recently been awarded a MOOI (Missiegedreven Onderzoek, Ontwikkeling en Innovatie – Mission-driven Research, Development and Innovation) subsidy, which it will use to develop plasma technology together with a new consortium. In addition to the Brightsite partners, the consortium consists of OCI Nitrogen and DIFFER. SABIC will be providing guidance to the consortium. “We are delighted with this collaboration and the substantial subsidy of several million euros that we have received from the Dutch Enterprising Civil Service (Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland, RVO) for the coming years. This subsidy underscores the importance of electrification and recognizes our specific plasma route as a promising opportunity for the greening of chemistry,” Stokking emphasizes.
The subsidy allows Brightsite to accelerate and expand plasma research. Developing new plasma processes that are more efficient will pave the way for circular chemistry. We will achieve this by working on three generations of technologies simultaneously, from TRL (Technology Readiness Level) 1 to 9, from laboratory to factory. The first generation is based on the existing technology. A feasibility study is being carried out, which should lead to an initial design on the scale of a pilot project. The second generation is all about optimizing the process on a demonstration scale. The third generation, the ‘dream factory’, is more fundamental, in that its focus lies on a different process which can be used to produce ethylene directly from methane. Eventually, this technology will need to be scaled up to commercial production level. In order to facilitate this research into the 2nd and 3rd generation of plasma technologies, a plasma lab is being developed on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus, which is expected to be open in the fall of 2021.
Plasma technology, how does it work?
Plasma is also referred to as the fourth state of aggregation, alongside liquid, solid and gas. Subjecting a gas to an electrical field of sufficient strength creates conditions for gas particles to become ionized. This ionized gas consists of gas molecules and reactive particles, such as ions, electrons and radicals. That combination of reactive particles then makes (new) chemical reactions possible. In the heart of this electrical flame, the heart of the plasma cloud, the temperature is extremely high. Under these conditions, molecules can be split and formed very quickly. Due to the fact that a plasma flame is generated using electrical energy, the process is very sustainable when green electricity is used.
Knowledge center Brightsite is a partnership between Sitech Services, TNO, Maastricht University and Brightlands Chemelot Campus, and focuses on making the chemical industry more sustainable at the Chemelot site and other locations. The climate goals pose hugely significant challenges for the chemical industry, but they also provide opportunities. Sound transition management will result in economic growth and will draw in talent and business. As the development and application of new technology involves much more than just the technical aspects, the work also includes safety aspects, social acceptance, legal and economic feasibility, job opportunities and education.